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It is well recognised that exercise has a wide range of benefits for our physical health . In fact, some experts have even gone as far as saying that “if exercise was a pill, everybody would be taking it”. But what is less well recognised is the positive impact that exercise can have on our mental health. Understanding the benefits of exercise can be the first step toward improving our mood and how we feel.

What does the evidence say?

So, is there any scientific evidence to show that exercise is good for our mental health? The short answer is: yes. In one of the largest mental health and exercise survey studies to date, 55000 people were asked about how much physical activity they carry out day-to-day, as well as a range of questions about their mental health. The survey found that those people who reported doing more physical activity also reported more positive mood, and lower levels of depression and anxiety.

Of course, correlation does not imply causation, but intervention studies have shown that exercise does lead to improvements in mental health, particularly depression. In these studies, people with depression either carry out some form of exercise (e.g. walking), or to do nothing at all. Those who exercise report reduced rates of depression compared to those who do not exercise. Indeed, exercise has also been shown to be just as effective as anti-depressant medication for reducing symptoms of depression.

How to find the time?

Knowing that exercise can improve our mood and reduce anxiety is one thing, but many people struggle to find time within their busy schedules to fit physical activity in. Below is a list of tips that may help you to think about how to fit exercise into your day:

Setting goals and planning ahead can help you to find the time to exercise, and also help to keep you feeling motivated. Try to keep the goals specific, measureable, achievable, relevant, and timed.

• Replace day-to-day sedentary activities with physical activities. Perhaps you could walk or cycle to work instead of driving, or take the stairs instead of the lift. House chores like vacuuming the carpet and mowing the lawn are also good ways of squeezing physical activity into your day. Lots of small amounts of physical exercise soon add up.

• When arranging social events, think about fun physical, rather than idle, activities. Perhaps ask your friend to play tennis instead of going for a drink at the pub, or ask your partner to go swimming instead of sitting in and watching a film. Adding a dose of healthy competition into the activity can be extremely fun and rewarding.

• Alternatively, consider joining a sports team, such as a football or rugby team. Sports teams often meet at regular times, making it easier for you to fit into your schedule. Sports teams also have the added benefit of allowing you to socialise with like-minded people.

• Perhaps most importantly, find an activity that you really enjoy. You’re much more likely to find the time to exercise if it is something you look forward to doing. Perhaps you’re not a fan of running on a treadmill in the gym, but you enjoy hiking in the countryside, learning a martial art, or geocaching. There are lots of options out there, finding the right activity for you will pay off in the long run.

Of course, there are other obstacles that can get in the way of exercising, and it’s often the last thing that you want to do when you’re feeling low or anxious. But the evidence shows that exercise is good for both our physical and mental health, and it doesn’t come with the negative side-effects caused by medication, so it’s worth sticking at.

Remember, if you’ve not exercised for a while then start with small, manageable chunks. Gradually build your way up to more intense levels of physical activity.

However, if you’re having problems with your mental health and feel that exercise alone isn’t helping, you may find it helpful to speak to your GP or a professional therapist (click here to contact one of our therapists).

Further information

The Ramblers Association – Britains biggest walking charity – find out where people are walking in your area.
Keep Fit Association – Find out about fitness classes around the UK.
Sport and Fitness Finder – Find out about sports teams and events around the UK.

Connor Heapy
Writer for Cognitive Practice
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