December 3, 2020, by Charlotte Gauja
Taking a closer look at mental health and exercise
The links between physical activity and our mental health isn’t a newly discovered phenomenon. There has been an ongoing awareness around the connections and correlations between the two for some time. Therefore, what you’re about to read isn’t necessarily meant to be ground-breaking knowledge. Instead, let it serve as a reminder of the ways exercise, can be of tremendous benefit to our mental health, wellbeing, or more appropriately termed: mental fitness.
Exercise has been found to stimulate the release of chemicals which positively affect us physiologically and psychologically. One of these chemicals, dopamine, is a hormone which taps into the reward-centre of the brain, this makes us feel high levels of gratification. This short-term release after exercise provides a sense of achievement acknowledging we have done something rewarding.
Similarly, serotonin is also released during and after physical activity. This mood-regulating hormone more broadly offers us overall feelings of pleasure, thus positively impacting our mental wellbeing. These chemicals can be released through any form of exercise, though will be in higher supplies when doing activities we enjoy. Therefore it is important to find exercise forms which keep us engaged and wanting more.
Pushing ourselves to our physical limits requires testing our mental limits too. Constantly redefining what we are capable of as human beings by challenging ourselves physically, boosts our confidence and self-esteem. This is because we are able to see the growth of our abilities over time. This process of setting and achieving new goals further taps into feelings of reward and self-satisfaction.
Goals allow us to see/feel/do what we are capable of achieving if we set our minds to a specific task. This mindset is transferable to other facets of life such as work, studies and interests, encouraging us to maximise our overall potential. Unlike many other areas of life, exercise has the unique quality of being a physical challenge than can help us with mental challenges.
While many enjoy exercising alone ,for others, the social aspects of physical activities can be hugely important for mental fitness. Whether it’s joining a sports club, doing fitness classes, taking on a challenge; all have one thing in common: community.
Being a part of something larger than ourselves and sharing that experience with others offers a sense of belonging. As inherently social creatures, this is something we need. Getting involved in different types of activities opens up opportunities for us to connect with others, which in turn can support us mentally and emotionally as we develop new relationships.
Social exercise options can be done both in-person and virtually. So think of how you can stay connected or connect to a new community.
Regular exercise develops our ability to move and recover better. This aids movement and sleep quality which reduces injury risk and fatigue. Internal processes such as our ability to metabolise energy and our cardiac efficiency vastly improve through training. This leads to increased energy levels and performance potential in future physical activity. These benefits help enhance our physical and mental potential, leading to greater reward in the short and long-term.
Other functions where exercise helps aid improvement is in our mental alertness. Both physical activity and positive nutritional habits assist in good circulation throughout the body, resulting in the efficient supply of oxygen to vital organs. This includes the brain, that becomes more receptive to stimuli, allowing for increased alertness for challenging daily tasks.
Resistance training can help improve metabolism over time, but it also plays a key role in muscle and joint health. Working on mobility, strength and endurance is rewarded as we get older, allowing us to keep active for longer.
Cardiovascular exercise, builds a stronger, healthier and happier heart. Like all muscles, cardiac can be trained to grow and become more efficient, allowing for better energy levels, mental alertness and stamina. These allowances reduce the risk of health complications, injuries and missing out on active opportunities.
Investing in our physical pension when we are younger could potentially seem like a waste of time and resources in our increasingly impulsive and quick-fix culture. But, being conscious of not just our current, but also our future mental and physical health pays off hugely down the line, even if we don’t notice it in the moment.
As we have discussed, we can’t look at mental fitness in isolation. Its links to physical, nutritional, medical and social fitness, as well as how we perceive ourselves, how we sleep and much more, illustrates the interconnected nature of mental health to other aspects of our lives. Exercise in particular plays a vital part in boosting positive mental health. If we make it an accessible, integrated, social and fun part of our lifestyles, we likely won’t even really realise just how much we are helping promote healthy minds and overall wellbeing within ourselves.
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