Everyone knows that exercise is good for our bodies – improving muscle mass and tone, our stamina, and helping strengthen against heart problems. But many people exercise for the way it makes them feel – the way it boosts their emotional wellbeing. Exercise has many benefits beyond physical strength, including improving our mood and mental health, reducing stress, improving quality of life, and even our cognitive abilities.
Interestingly, the type of exercise doesn’t really matter – start with what you enjoy most (or what you hate least!). A sedentary lifestyle is bad for us humans, and anything from yoga to dance has been shown to help psychological wellbeing. Let’s look at a few specifics.
Anxiety affects more people than we’d imagine, ranging from general and social anxiety disorders, to panic attacks and the like. In the study “Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity”, published in 2005, Dahn & Penedo show that exercise reduces these symptoms. And more recently, in 2011, the International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine published “Exercise for the treatment of depression and anxiety” where it stated that intense exercise for 20 minutes, 3 times a week may reduce long term anxiety.
Lots of studies (including the two mentioned above) have shown a link between depression and a sedentary lifestyle. The scientific reasoning for physical exercise in this context is that exercise increases the ability (and possibly capacity) for your brain to release serotonin and endorphins. This is a natural mechanism that improves your mood, and increases the feeling of wellbeing. Why not try walking to work, or at lunchtime? Some workplaces actively encourage 1-2-1 meetings to take place whilst walking around the block, as a means to improve collective and individual workplace morale through serotonin.
Memory and Attention
Beyond mental disorders, exercise has also been shown to enable the elderly to hold on to their memory for longer. In a large study of women aged 70-81, those who were most active had a 20% lower risk of cognitive impairment. Whatever your age, exercise also improves your sleep, which is a great way to increase your attention span during the day.
So when you are stressed, burnt out, feeling low or suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, why not try exercise as a means to lift your mood?