Years of studies have proven that regular exercise is good for the body. People who train regularly tend to do so because it gives them an increased sense of positive well-being – they feel more energetic throughout the day, experience deeper and more restful sleep at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. But physical fitness is also one of the most effective ways to improve your mental wellbeing, and can have a profoundly positive impact on many common mental health challenges.
Ever taken note of how your body feels physically when you’re under stress? Your muscles may be tense, especially in your face, neck, and shoulders, leaving you with back or neck pain, or painful headaches. You may feel a tightness in your chest, a rapid pulse, or sudden, strong muscle cramps throughout your limbs. You can also experience problems such as insomnia, heartburn or stomach cramps. The worry and discomfort of all these physical symptoms can in turn lead to even more stress, generating a vicious cycle between your mind and body.
Training is an effective and engaging way to break this cycle. As well as releasing endorphins in the brain, physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. Rigorous exercise promotes all kinds of changes in the brain, including neural growth (neurogenesis), increased flow of endorphins, reduced inflammation, and new neural activity patterns that promote feelings of calm, mindfulness and well-being.
Exercising regularly is one of the easiest and most effective ways to improve concentration, motivation, memory, and mood. In the short term, physical activity immediately helps to boost the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin levels – all of which direct focus and attention throughout the day.
Noticeable long-term benefits of regular fitness activity can include:
Sharper memory and executive thinking.
The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Your single-task focus ability noticeably increases, allowing you to power through problem-solving and tasks requiring critical thinking. Exercise also helps to stimulate the growth and formation of new brain cells, and helps prevent age-related decline.
When regular physical activity forms a habit, it can increase your sense of self-worth. You’ll feel better about your physique, notice your own gains in strength and flexibility, and by meeting even small fitness goals on a weekly basis, you’ll feel an increased sense of achievement each time.
Raising your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise per day, and increase your workout as you feel more energized – you’ll be amazed at the difference in duration and intensity of training that can be achieved with consistent activity.
Better quality of sleep.
Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns – stimulating a natural increase in your dopamine levels with even moderate exercise can help you feel more rested at the end of each day. If you prefer exercising at night, more gentle series of exercises such as yoga or stretching can help promote sleep.
Stronger emotional resilience.
When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, regular training can provide something to look forward to each week and help you cope in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviours. Regular physical exercise can also help boost your immune system and reduce the short and long-term impacts of stress.
While everyone’s own levels of tolerance, stamina and conditioning may vary, most studies estimate that you can reap the physical and mental health benefits of exercise with even 30 minutes of moderate exercise three to five times a week. The key is to commit to some moderate physical activity – however little – on most days. As regular training and fitness circuits become a habit, you can slowly add extra minutes or try including different types of activities for your regimen. If you keep at it, the benefits will pay off.