Watching Team GB's success in Rio, many of us have been inspired to follow their example and do more physical activity. Maybe you've decided to try something new. We all know the physical benefits of doing more exercise, but did you know it also plays a big part in looking after your mental health?
Many people will have noticed that going for a swim after a stressful day, or taking a quick walk at lunch, can help clear their head and break up racing thoughts. But it’s not just about an immediate mood boost - exercise actually helps your body become more resistant to stress over time.
So how does this work?
During physical activity, the body produces cortisol and adrenalin. These are the same hormones your body produces when experiencing stress. Physical activity helps your body to build up its resilience to these hormones. It learns to control cortisol levels so that it can better manage stress in other situations, whether that’s exam season or a difficult situation at work.
Physical activity is so successful at reducing depression and levels of anxiety, GPs can prescribe it as a treatment for minor cases of depression, an alternative to medication of psychotherapy. Increased physical activity has even been shown to help protect you against developing dementia later in life.
There are added bonuses as well. Exercise can help boost your self-esteem. As your fitness levels improve, you notice improvements in your body which helps you feel better about yourself. Trying new activities and learning new skills gives you a sense of achievement, especially when you find something you really enjoy.
Getting more involved in physical activity can also have a social aspect. While it's easy to see the social benefits of joining a local team or exercise class, even more solitary activities such as walking still have a social side. You could walk with friends or family, and even walking on your own you will often meet people, especially when walking in your local area.
Being more active doesn’t have to mean going to the gym or taking up jogging. The key thing is to do something you enjoy. Set yourself manageable targets and don’t try to do too much all at once.
So be inspired by our Olympians. Try something new and enjoy not just better physical health, but better mental health as well. Who knows, one day someone could be inspired by you.
With thanks to Dr Helena Tuomainen, Senior Research Fellow.
Want to learn more?
If you want to find out more about how physical activity can help your mental health, here are a few resources which may help:
- Physical activity, sport and mental health (Mind.org.uk)
- How to look after your mental health using exercise (Mental Health Foundation)
- Physical Activity and Mental Health (Royal College of Psychiatrists)