This is a classic but for good reasons: it works. The first step to mental well-being is to exercise regularly.
This seems to be a universal truth since ancient Greece times and I wondered why so I decided to do a bit of research on the subject and this is what I found.
How exercise helps your mental wellbeing
Exercising regularly impact you physically, mentally and socially. Here are the details:
- Exercise gives you more energy and vitality
- Exercise improves your sleep
- Exercise will restore a healthy appetite
- Exercise makes you mentally sharper and better at planning and decision making
- Exercise improves your mood, reduces anxiety, decreases stress and boosts self-esteem
- Exercise brings you out into the world
The neurological mechanics of mental wellbeing
Our brains are wonderful things. In his book “The Upward Spiral” Alex Korb, neuroscientist specialised in mood disorders, explains the neurological mechanics of wellbeing.
Here are the chemicals coming into play:
- Serotonin – improves willpower, motivation and mood
- Norepinephrine – enhance thinking, focus and dealing with stress
- Dopamine – increases enjoyment and is necessary for changing bad habits
- Endorphins – provide pain relief and feelings of elation
- Endocannabinoids – improve your appetite and increase feelings of peacefulness and wellbeing
What happens in your brain when you exercise
So what happens in your brain when you exercise? Well, quite a lot.
Exercise strengthens your brain
Exercise increases nerve growth factors. These make your brain stronger, and so your brain become more resistant to all kind of problems, including low mood. Exercise also causes growth of new neurons, which in turn increases gray matter.
Exercise boost your serotonin activity
Movement causes your brain to release more serotonin. And when more serotonin is released, more is produced to keep up with demand.
Also serotonin and the nerve factors we talked about above work together. Serotonin stimulates the production of the nerve factors, and the nerve factors strengthens serotonin neurons. So exercise set things in motion and the brain keeps it going. Clever, right?
Exercise increases your norepinephrine
All exercises increase norepinephrine but the more intense the exercise, the more benefits you get.
Exercise increases your levels of dopamine
Dopamine is the brain’s own version of amphetamines. The dopamine circuit in the brain controls aspects of pleasure, decision making and focus. Dysfunctional dopamine explains the lack of enjoyment that often goes with low mood. This can be reversed by exercising which will increases your dopamine levels.
Exercise causes your brain to release endorphins
Endorphins send neural signals to reduce pain and provide anxiety relief and as a result they improve your mood. They act like opiates.
Endorphins act in the parts of the brain influencing:
- motivation and decision making
- planning and thinking
- pain perception
Endorphin signaling in all of these areas is improved by exercise. And same as with the norepinephrine, the more intense the exercise, the bigger the boost.
Exercise increases activation of the endocannabinoid system
Just like dopamine and endorphins, endocannabinoids is another “natural drug” activated during exercise. It reduces pain sensitivity and gives a sense of wellbeing. It was named after cannabis because it has similar effect.
Exercise reduces stress hormones
Studies have shown that stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline are dramatically reduced in people who exercise regularly.
In a nutshell
- Exercising activate 5 ‘wellbeing’ chemicals and lower stress hormones levels
- Exercising activates 3 “natural drug” responsible for making you feel good
- The more intensive the exercise, the bigger the benefits
So do I even need to say it? Exercising is THE first action to take when you start feeling low.
Let’s get you started
You don’t feel like exercising? Of course you don’t. But it isn’t you talking, it is your low mood. So here are a few tips that might help you get started gently.
When you don’t think of exercise as “exercise” but rather as “being active” or “having fun” you are more likely to do it and it will have a bigger emotional effect. If you cycle to work a few times a week or go a salsa class with a friend, it won’t feel like you’re exercising, but you will feel the benefit.
Take a friend with you
Social interaction is good to fight low mood and social pressure will push you to exercise. If you have said to a friend that you will meet them at the HIT class, you will go even if you don’t feel like it just because you wouldn’t want to let your friend down.
Commit to a brief trial period
Meaning for example:
- Sign up to a class and commit to go to the first three
- Join a gym and promise yourself that you will go every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for two weeks
Enjoy the view
Studies have shown that the benefits of exercise are boosted when you are exercising either in a nice environment or while looking at pictures of a nice environment. So pick somewhere pretty to exercise!
Think about what’s important to you
When you connect your exercise to a long-term goal, it helps you push through the difficult part and it makes your exercise more satisfying.
For me it is of course about having a healthy mind (and getting back into my pretty seize 10 dresses).
Exercise before you reward yourself
Before you sit down to watch TV or any other relaxing activity, make sure you have earned it by doing something before. For example, 5 push-up. You’ll enjoy the relaxation more knowing that you deserve it.
Keep an exercise plan
Plan when you will exercise and check it off afterwards. Both actions impact on the ‘happy circuits’ in your brain so both have a positive effect on raising your mood.
Personally I highlight in yellow every day that I exercise on a monthly planner. It has the added benefit of helping me see how much I have achieved, which motivates me to keep going.
Make it simple
Keep is simple, it will be easier to convince yourself to do it. For example, commit to do one push-up when you get up. If you feel like doing more, go for it but if not then you’ve done well already.
Keep it at your own level. The only comparison that matters is the comparison with yourself so choose something that will stretch you a little but is achievable. No need to follow your super fit friend to a kettle bell class if you have never lifted a weight in your whole life. It will be painful and you will never go again. Not talking from experience here of course ;)
Make an anti-laziness rule
Agree with yourself that going forward you will (for example):
- always take the stairs rather than the lift
- walk instead of drive for short distances
- park a little further so that you have to walk a little more
Make it your own, you’re more likely to follow through if it resonates with you.
How it has worked for me
Over the last few years I have drastically increased the time I spent exercising. Exercising is now part of my normal routine and I wouldn’t go without it as it has had a huge impact on my wellbeing.
Here is my current routine (I say current because I tend to regularly change my exercise routine as I like variety).
I have been practicing yoga for about 5 years now with the same teacher, apart for the 18 months I was based in Denmark. I have learned and grown a lot thanks to Michelle and I am very grateful to her. I talk more about the benefits of yoga in “How meditation can help relieve your depression”.
I attend an advanced 90 minutes class on Monday evening and this is a sacred slot. I very rarely cancel. I have to be very ill or away not to go. This class is particularly helpful when I feel low as it is a safe space for me to just be as I am.
Healthy Lean and Sexy
This is a program that my mentor Ed JC Smith started on the 1st of January and that I describe more in “The power of accountability”.
I currently get up at 5:45am Monday to Friday to start exercising at 6am (I am more flexible at the weekend). Three days a week we spend 20 minutes on a specific group of muscles and then go for either a walk or a jog (depending on fitness level) for 40 minutes. Another three days we go straight out for a walk or a jog for 60 minutes. On the last day we do 20 minutes stretch and then 40 minutes’ walk or jog. We finish each day with 10 minutes of mindfulness.
This has been a very good challenge for me. I have to say that I haven’t done it EVERY single because, well sometimes life gets in the way. But the days I do it are usually days when I feel better than the days I don’t.
When I start my day with exercise, I feel good and I feel like I have done something positive for myself. And so whatever drama the day brings, it will be fine because I have been for a run.
There was this one day where I came home very upset from work. I hadn’t been out in the morning, because I had a very early start at work. When I came home, instead of hitting the wine (which would be my default setting – don’t judge me, nobody’s perfect!) I went for a run. I felt so much better afterwards than I promised myself that this would be my new default setting. I can still enjoy a glass of wine later on. And I will enjoy it more as I will have deserved it.
What about you? Have you tried using exercising as a way to improve your mental health? Did it work for you too? I’d love to hear your experience so leave a comment!
Intellectual Property lawyer by day, blogger and life coach by night. Having suffered from depression on and off over 20 years, Emilie has done extensive research on the subject and worked out a system to manage depression without medication through having a healthy lifestyle. She shares her experience and tips on her blog https://memyhealthandi.org/