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How exercise helps mental health – the five key benefits

Kirk Norcross opens up about mental health struggle

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Only 65.5 percent of men and 54 percent of women are meeting the Government’s recommended physical activity guidelines. We’re all meant to be doing two and a half hours of moderate-intensity activity over a week. These guidelines aren’t only set to improve our chances of living longer, fuller and disease-free lives, they’re also in place to help our mental health. reveals the five ways exercise benefits our mental health, according to the Mental Health Foundation.

Mood boost

Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on our mood, which is beneficial whether you have a diagnosed mental health condition or not.

One study asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g. going for a walk or doing housework), and periods of inactivity (e.g. reading a book or watching television) and the results were hugely in favour of exercise.

The researchers found that the participants felt “more content, more awake and calmer” after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity.

They also found that the effect of physical activity on mood was greatest when the mood was initially low, which bodes well if you suffer from depression, anxiety or low mood.

Overall, research has found that low-intensity aerobic exercise for 30 to 35 minutes, three to five days a week, for 10 to 12 weeks was best at increasing positive moods.


We’re all stressed every now and then but some people are more easily stressed out than others.

The Mental Health Foundation explained: “When events occur that make us feel threatened or that upset our balance in some way, our body’s defences cut in and create a stress response, which may make us feel a variety of uncomfortable physical symptoms and make us behave differently, and we may also experience emotions more intensely.

“The most common physical signs of stress include sleeping problems, sweating, and loss of appetite.

“Symptoms like these are triggered by a rush of stress hormones in our body – otherwise known as the ‘fight or flight’ response.

“It is these hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, which raise our blood pressure, increase our heart rate and increase the rate at which we perspire, preparing our body for emergency response.

“They can also reduce blood flow to our skin and can reduce our stomach activity, while cortisol, another stress hormone, releases fat and sugar into the system to boost our energy.”

Physical exercise can be very effective in relieving stress, a range of research has shown.

One study on employed adults found that highly active individuals tend to have lower stress rates compared to individuals who are less active.

Improves self-esteem

Exercise not only has a positive impact on our physical health, but it can also increase our self-esteem.

Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves and how we perceive our self-worth.

If you’re someone who always feels down about your appearance, achievements or anything else, it’s time to get moving!

Your self-esteem is a key indicator of your mental well-being and ability to cope with life stressors.

The Mental Health Foundation said: “Physical activity has been shown to have a positive influence on our self-esteem and self-worth.

“This relationship has been found in children, adolescents, young adults, adults and older people, and across both males and females.”

Protects against dementia

There has been an increase in the number of people living with dementia and in people with cognitive decline over the last few decades.

The main symptom of dementia is memory loss and it is a progressive disease that results in people becoming more impaired over time.

A decline in cognitive functions, such as attention and concentration, also occurs in older people, including those who do not develop dementia.

Physical activity has been identified as a protective factor in studies that examined risk factors for dementia, the Mental Health Foundation explained.

The site adds: “For people who have already developed the disease, physical activity can help to delay further decline in functioning.

“Studies show that 10 there is approximately a 20 to 30 percent lower risk of depression and dementia for adults participating in daily physical activity.

“Physical activity also seems to reduce the likelihood of experiencing cognitive decline in people who do not have dementia.”

Treats depression

There’s no shame in taking medication for depression, but physical activity can be an alternative treatment for depression for some people.

It can be used as a standalone treatment or in combination with medication and/ or psychological therapy.

The Mental Heath Foundation said: “It has few side effects and does not have the stigma that some people perceive to be attached to taking antidepressants or attending psychotherapy and counselling.

“Physical activity can reduce levels of anxiety in people with mild symptoms and may also be helpful for treating clinical anxiety.

“Physical activity is available to all, has few costs attached, and is an empowering approach that can support self-management.”

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