Studies show that regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem, reduce stress and anxiety, and play a role in improving the quality of life of people experiencing mental health problems.
The UK Chief Medical Officers’ Physical Activity Guidelines state that adults should try to be active every day and aim to do at least 150 minutes of physical activity over a week. It’s important to listen to your body and exercise within your ability – so take it slowly and whether you are moving from your armchair or going out for a walk or a cycle, it’s all good progress!
How can physical activity can benefit our mental wellbeing?
The relationship between exercise and sleep has been well researched. Studies show the bidirectional relationship between sleep and exercise – exercise can alleviate sleep-related problems and help us get more rest, and not enough sleep can lead to lower levels of physical activity the following day.
Making time to take part in regular physical exercise can:
- Improve sleep quality. Physical activity increases time spent in deep sleep (the most physically restorative sleep phase). Deep sleep helps to boost immune function, support heart health, and control stress and anxiety.
- Improve sleep hygiene. Exercise raises our core body temperature which is then followed by a gradual cooling; this mimics the natural fluctuations of the circadian rhythm and paves the way for improved sleep.
- Help calm anxiety and racing thoughts. Exercise can support our mind to relax in preparation for sleep – just 5 minutes of exercise can trigger anti-anxiety responses in the body!
- Increase sleep amounts. By being physically active we use energy which helps us feel more tired and ready to rest at the end of the day.
When we feel stress, our body triggers the stress response in our bodies which can cause symptoms such as difficulty sleeping, sweating, muscle tension and nausea. This is the start of the ‘Stress Cycle’. The stress cycle can be completed by movement. This means that when we complete the stress cycle, we may be able to relieve some of the uncomfortable symptoms. Regular exercise can therefore be useful in reducing stress symptoms.
Exercise can also provide stress relief for our body while imitating effects of stress (such as the flight or fight response), and help our body practice working through those effects. This can also lead to positive effects in our body (including our cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems) which helps protect our body from the harmful effects of stress.
It doesn’t have to be anything big – a gentle walk can have a big impact on our stress levels!
Help Low Mood and Anxiety
Movement is known to release ‘feel good’ hormones called endorphins which can help to increase our mood. It can also help us feel more energised, calmer and more positive.
Physical activity can also help create a sense of routine when we make it a regular part of our week. We may also find that this regular focus on a single task can help us stay calm, clear and focused.
Self-esteem is how we think and feel about ourselves and view our own self-worth. Movement can help us feel more confident in the following ways:
- A sense of accomplishment. The success of creating an exercise routine and sticking to it, or setting and achieving goals, can brings use a sense of achievement and accomplishment.
- Improved Self-Image. Regular exercise helps build confidence by showing us what our bodies are capable of. Whether we’ve smashed a personal best or simply gone out for a walk for the first time in days, exercise can make us feel good about our abilities.
- Increased Brain Power. When we do aerobic exercise, we feed our brain with valuable nutrients and oxygen, improving cognitive function. After exercise, we tend to feel more focused, alert and able to complete the tasks of the day more efficiently, therefore improving our self-esteem!
Improve social connections
Taking part in physical activity helps us connect with more people and make new friends.
Participating in team sports or exercise with a group will help us develop greater empathy and social skills, as well as new connections new social outlets.
Dr. Kelly McGonigal, author of The Joy of Movement: How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, explains why exercise is such an important way of enhancing our relationships with others.
“Movement offers us pleasure, identity, belonging, and hope. It puts us in places that are good for us, whether that’s outdoors in nature, in an environment that challenges us, or with a supportive community. It allows us to redefine ourselves and reimagine what is possible. It makes social connection easier.”
Protect from Ageing
As we grow older, incorporating a balanced exercise programme into our life can help protect from some of the effects of aging. Research shows regular activity benefits our health in the following ways:
- Builds and maintains muscle mass. This makes everyday activities like cooking, cleaning and climbing stairs less difficult, and helps us stay independent as we grow older.
- Improves bone density. In our 40s and 50s we slowly start losing more bone than we make. Exercise can help increase bone density and keep osteoporosis at bay, a disease that weakens bone and increases the risk of breaks as you age.
- Improved cognition. Our ability to shift quickly between tasks, plan an activity and ignore irrelevant information are all signs of good cognitive function, according to the National Institute on Aging. Physical activity is now seen as one of the best methods for improving cognition throughout life and reducing age-related cognitive decline.
View our leaflet below to see what exercises we can do to improve physical and mental health as we get older:
But what if I feel unwell?
It can be difficult for us to get or stay active if we feel unwell and at times frustrating to hear being more active if we feel unable to access the benefits.
Firstly, speak to a GP if you have medical conditions or concerns.
If we feel unwell, we could start with gentle walks focusing on non-active elements (like being in nature or taking photos of wildlife), or some light activity such as housework, moving around the home or stretching.
Once we’re feeling a bit better we can build more physical activity into our routine. It’s important to find a balance and figure out what works best you. Sometimes this means being creative and trying some different activities until you find the thing that works for you, or taking a break and coming back to movement when we’re ready.
Bath Mind’s Movement Groups:
We understand that starting exercise can feel daunting and this can often be a barrier to people starting. Bath Mind have multiple friendly and open groups available if you would like a supportive environment where you can incorporate more movement into your routine.
Active Opportunities offers gentle physical activities to improve physical and mental health, supporting people to self-care and reduce social isolation. Activities vary each week but include wellbeing walks, chair yoga, table tennis and badminton.
Our football sessions with Bath City Football Foundation offer fun and friendly mixed game for all abilities. We have a wonderful team of volunteers and peer volunteers who you can chat to about your wellbeing at any time. The group takes place every week and is free to attend!
Our Greenlinks gardening group offers an opportunity to engage in gardening activities while socialising with others. Gardening works all the major muscle groups and tasks such as digging, lifting bags of mulch or pushing wheelbarrows all provide strength training which leads to healthier bones and joints. The group runs from various locations in B&NES.
Wellbeing Walks are short, gentle walks led by volunteers from Bath Mind and Bathscape. The walk will be at a pace that is right for the whole group and are a relaxed, social and friendly space for the members. Wellbeing Walks take place every week and are free to attend!