Written by Dr. Mark Winwood
Dr Mark Winwood is a leading psychologist, and Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health.
We all know the physical benefits that come with being active: from a healthy heart and improved circulation to improved bone health and reduced risk of some illnesses. But, with physical and mental health being so intertwined, exercise is known to also have profound impacts on our mental wellbeing. Helping to develop resilience, improve low mood and boost self-esteem are some of the key positive benefits getting active can have. Dr Mark Winwood, Clinical Lead for Mental Health Services at AXA Health, explains: "When you’re active, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin - the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which are known to improve your mood." In other words, you get a natural high. If the activities we’re doing also include the opportunity to bond with others – or even with our pets – the release of another brain chemical, oxytocin, also helps us to feel good. So, joyful activities help us access optimistic mindsets and also reduce harmful changes in the brain caused by stress and can help us to see possibilities, instead of feeling defeated.
"However, if you’re feeling low, or struggling with anxiety and depression, it’s easy to get caught in a cycle of not wanting to do much; you may not feel you’re worth the effort so you do less of the things that could potentially help you. You may think ‘I’m no good at it’, or ‘I can’t even get up and walk to the shops’ and then use these negative thoughts to punish yourself even more."
"The best way to break that cycle is to increase your activity, start small and build it into your day. Something as simple as going for a ten-minute walk at first will help. Then set yourself targets to increase your activity, making it part of your daily life, but be sure to be kind to yourself and make sure you choose an activity that you genuinely enjoy and know will be most likely to make you feel good."
To stay healthy, adults aged 19-64 should try to be active daily and it is recommended that we do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. This can range from cycling or brisk walking, to dancing, swimming or even gardening.
The more exercise you can fit into your daily life, the more likely you are to feel better prepared to deal with life’s challenges, but to really get the most out of keeping active, choose whatever it is that makes you feel great!
Being more physically active can help you:
- Feel less depressed or anxious
- Concentrate better
- Sleep better
- Feel good about yourself, improving your self-worth and confidence
- Help combat addictive behaviours that may negatively impact your physical health, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.
Make time, set goals and be realistic
If you’re put off the idea of exercise because you think you’d look silly, don’t like getting sweaty, think you won’t be able to do it, or any other reason, the good news is that being physically active doesn’t have to be about ‘feeling the burn’ or a ‘no pain, no gain’ mentality.
Whatever exercise you choose, in order to feel the mental health benefits and to stick to it long term, which in turn will increase your self-esteem and sense of achievement, it helps if it is enjoyable for you. We’re all different and so whichever form of exercise you enjoy will be what gives you the most mental health benefits. We’re much more likely to be successful in our journey to health when we enjoy each part along the way.
No time? No problem!
If you’ve got a busy lifestyle, try to use whatever time you have available and remember that no effort is too small – it all adds up so those well-known little tricks like taking the stairs not the lift and getting off the bus a stop early shouldn’t be underestimated!
With the help of Dr Mark Winwood, we’ve put together 10 top tips to help you stay happy when you’re active:
- Group exercise is a great way to get started and stay motivated. It’s also great for morale and building close connections with others, making you feel happy and making exercise an integral part of the socialising.
- Any exercise is better than none, but why not try to make it a habit! Shorter bursts of activity a few times a week are better than doing it all in one go, for example, five lots of 15-minute activities makes it more of a habit than one burst of an hour.
- Why not start with a stroll, building up activity to be regular and more vigorous.
- You don’t have to get out of breath; as a rough guide, you should still be able to hold a conversation, but not sing a line of a song!
- If you’re tired, exercise can give you energy – it’s possible to push through the tiredness barrier if you find activities that aren’t too physically or mentally demanding for you and even more so when you enjoy what you’re doing.
- There’s no ‘best’ time of the day to be active; it’s whatever fits into your lifestyle, but try not to do too much before bedtime, since raising your body temperature affects sleep, as do some of the hormones produced, such as adrenaline and the faster heart rate you may experience after exercise.
- Fitness trackers can help you stay motivated and achieve your goals but use them wisely. If you become dissatisfied because your tracker tells you that your sleep was too light or you haven’t done as many steps as you’d hoped, maybe take some time away from using it. You’re doing your best, so having your tech bring you down won’t be helpful for making you feel good.
- Try exercising in daylight, especially in winter. Daylight, whether it’s sunny or not, helps give you the extra energy you need to be active, helps with sleep as it contributes to establishing our natural circadian pattern, and can also boost your vitamin D intake. "Vitamin D has been found to be essential for good brain development and functioning and having low levels are associated with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), depression and anxiety,” says Dr Winwood.
- Don’t beat yourself up! If you don’t make it out for a walk or to the gym, rather than worry about it, make a plan to go another time.
- Don’t worry if you don’t have any equipment or special sportswear. Being physically active can be as simple as following a 20-minute yoga video at home and there are exercises you can do at home that include using tins of food as weights and using your stairs to help you stretch.
If you’re thinking about becoming more active, you'll find plenty of information and inspiration in our exercise and fitness centre, as well as on our Headstrong page, where you'll find breath work and mindful movement videos from Richie Norton. Or why not try 30 minutes of brisk walking, five times a week for four weeks and see the impact it has - from improving your blood flow, to strengthening your muscles, as well as gaining a new perspective to help you become more resilient.
Steps to becoming active – your way - AXA Health
How to boost the benefits of walking - AXA Health
Benefits and tips for exercising outdoors – AXA Health
 This Is How Joy Affects Your Body - Healthline