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If you could bottle the health effects of exercise and sell them, you’d never need to work again! ‘Regular exercise’ crops up time and time again as a positive lifestyle habit to support almost every aspect of health and longevity, and not least for its role as a ‘natural anti-depressant’ and its powerful ability to counter the negative effects of stress.

In this article we take a brief look at some of the stress-busting and mental health-supportive benefits of exercise and share our thoughts on where to begin if you’re ready to add some more activity into your week.

Mental health & stress-busting effects of exercise

Exercise is associated with a wide range of health benefits and can improve both physical and mental health. Research shows that people who exercise regularly report improved quality of life, reduced psychological stress and improved physical function. It’s difficult to find any negative side effects of exercising regularly and yet the negative effects of lack of exercise are too numerous to list. Research has shown an association between lack of physical activity and symptoms of depression and anxiety. Exercise can even be used as a treatment in many common neuropsychological diseases.

In a 2020 review on Exercise Intervention in Neuropsychological Diseases published in Frontiers in Psychology, the authors concluded that exercise could be used effectively to reduce morbidity and mortality associated with common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression.1

There is scientific basis to the mental health benefits of exercise. Exercise reduces levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and stimulates the production of endorphins. Endorphins are brain chemicals that act as the body's natural painkillers and mood boosters. It is endorphins that are responsible for the ‘runner's high’ and the feelings of relaxation, calm and optimism that follow workouts.

Regular exercise delivers lasting benefits too. Research has demonstrated improvements in cognitive function, cerebral blood flow, reduced oxidative stress response, increased neurotransmitter levels, neural plasticity, improved blood-brain barrier function and improved ability to concentrate and process information.

It’s crystal clear that the benefits of exercise for mental health are simply too numerous to ignore; but how can you get started on increasing your activity levels without feeling overwhelmed or setting unrealistic goals and then falling at the first hurdle? Here’s a few tips:

How to add more activity into your week:

✔ Start small
As with developing any new habit, the best way to get started is to start small with a realistic goal that you are 100% confident you can achieve. Choose to do one extra activity this week; this could be a 10-minute walk. Once you’ve achieved your goal, you can start to increase it. Instead, if you go for a mammoth new year’s resolution-style goal such as going from no activity at all to running 5K every day, you’re very likely to feel overwhelmed and like a failure when you don’t achieve your unrealistic goal. If you do aim to start running longer distances, be sure to check out our piece on the best supplements for running.

✔ Choose something you enjoy
There are so many different ways to exercise and it’s important to choose something you enjoy, that way you’re more likely to do it regularly. Not everyone enjoys running, so don’t feel guilty if you’re not excited by the prospect of a couch to 5K style challenge, many people aren’t. Anything that gets your heart rate pumping counts; this could be dancing, canoeing, swimming, cycling, exercise classes, brisk walking, badminton, tennis, squash, basketball or even a game of rounders; have a go at a few different activities to find something that you enjoy.

✔ Tick more mental health boxes
Exercising is a great way to connect with others, especially at the moment where our social interactions are limited. Social connections are vitally important for our mental health and cognitive function, and so too is exercise; and if you combine these two together you’ll get even more out of it! Meeting up with a friend to exercise adds accountability too; you’re more likely to stick to your plan than find an excuse not to.

✔ Make your goal bulletproof
If you choose to add an extra walk into your week, decide now when, where and with whom you’re going to do it. The more clarity and detail you add to your goal, the more likely you are to stick to it.

✔ Consider your magnesium intake
If you’re adding more exercise into your week, it’s important to pay attention to the nutrients your body needs to meet this increased activity. One nutrient that deserves special mention is magnesium; an essential mineral involved in energy production, muscle function and also vital for mental health, a balanced stress response and quality sleep. Sadly, the typical Western diet, packed full of refined, processed foods is often lacking in magnesium – found in rich supply in nutrient-dense wholegrains, nuts, seeds, raw cacao and leafy greens. In addition to upping your dietary intake, you may find it useful to add magnesium in powdered glycinate form to help support this increased need.

1. Chen Z, Lan W, et al. Exercise Intervention in Neuropsychological Diseases: A Review. Frontiers in Psychology. 2020 Oct 22; 11:569206

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