Did you know Exercise is good for your Mental Health too?

25 Apr 2017
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Exercise is obviously good for physical health – but it’s also great for mental health too

It’s been well documented how exercise is beneficial, indeed essential, for our physical health. Regular exercise helps keep us fit, increases our ability to burn calories so reduces fat stores , strengthens our bodies including heart and lungs, etc.

But did you know how good it is for our mental health too, our overall well being?
Going to the gym (or out for a run, attending a yoga class, zumba, dancing, cycling… whatever you preferred movement is) allows our brain a little time to free-wheel. We might think about work or home stuff but generally in a rather random and unfocused way, flitting around like a butterfly from one thought to the next. This free thinking is actually allowing our brains to process and download events that have happened or problems that we’re facing. Our brains need to ‘download’ roughly every 90 minutes or so throughout the day but our ‘schedules’ allow little time for it – and without this processing time we would be over-loaded and have little spare capacity for dealing with new inputs.
By exercising we are physically exhausting the body, which helps our bodies and brains to get optimum rest. Sleep is a crucial time for brain downloading – we go through several cycles of deep sleep-REM (rapid eye movement)-light sleep throughout the night. The REM (dreaming) phase is our brain’s way of sorting through the events that have happened that day/week/month/from childhood even. It plays with the memory turning it this way and that, maybe creating a metaphorical scene (this is where you dream of running through the office naked or riding a pink unicorn over a rainbow!) or reliving it in clear, and deciding if it’s something it needs to hold on to or if it can move it over into the long term memory banks. And it’s also a good way to solve a problem or dilemma – having you heard the saying ‘sleep on it’ – that’s because the subconscious doesn’t switch off, so through your night’s sleep it will continue to examine the issue and you might find you wake up with the answer popping straight into your head!
Exercise after work is an excellent way of creating a ‘buffer zone’ between work and home – helping you to switch from the office to home life. It gives you time to adjust from ‘work you’ to ‘home you’.
Counting and breathing: a lot of exercise involves counting and regulated breathing. Counting is an excellent way to distract and calm the brain – in fact we use counting as a coping strategy. If you feel yourself getting angry try counting to 10 before doing anything, it will often diffuse the immediate feelings of blind rage. And many exercises incorporate breathing, think about yoga where breathing is integral to the movement, or strength-based training, every time you lift a weight you focus on breathing out, when you relax you breath in. Also in therapy, we use breathing as a stress buster: try 7/11 breathing next time you’re feeling anxious, depressed or angry (breath in counting to 7, and out counting to 11).
We also tend to interact with other people when we exercise, be it your fellow class members, other people out on runs or cycling, fellow gym goers… if you attend classes, run at the same time and place, arrange tennis matches, etc chances are you’ll be seeing the same people and whether consciously or not, you’ll develop a ‘relationship’. Even a nod to a fellow cyclist going the other way counts! It’s a connection. And this all helps motivate you to return, enhances your exercise experience, releases hormones by positively interacting (serotonin, oxytocin) – and that all helps with your general wellbeing.
Hormones also play an important role and that leads us into the mind/body connection – many hormones are released by the hypothalamus, situated within the Limbic system (mammalian or primitive brain). Feel-good hormones like serotonin, oxytocin (the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone) and the reward hormone dopamine all fire off during exercise.
So next time you’re at the gym, at a gym, going for a run or cycle or walk, take a minute to enjoy the benefit you’re getting mentally as well as physically!

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