Why exercise is so good for mental health and how to find the motivation to get moving!
RED January is a nationwide movement for mental wellbeing, led by the community, for the community. RED was started by Hannah Beecham in 2016 after seeing how important exercise was for her Mum in recovering from severe depression. RED aims to promote the positive mental health benefits which can be achieved through physical movement whilst also raising money for Sport in Mind. RED originally stood for Run Every Day but has since grown to encompass any kind of movement. You can sign up to RED January here and start moving every day in January!
The benefits to our physical health from exercise are more widely known but we generally know less about why exercise has such a positive impact on our mental health. I share my personal experiences and professional expertise as a personal trainer, fitness instructor and habit change expert here to provide tips on how you can get yourself moving in January and beyond!
Exercise and my mental health
Exercise is my coping mechanism and my number one self-care activity. It has helped me battle through depression, anxiety and get to a healthy relationship with my body after having an eating disorder. It has been a constant in my life through relationship breakdowns and divorce, through grief and fertility losses. It has helped me be the person I am, feel comfortable in my own skin, have energy, be creative and helped me get up in the morning. Exercise makes me feel my best self.
Those of us who love exercise know how good it can make us feel and we can’t live without it. I love that RED January promotes this and I am passionate for others to find this and embrace the power of exercise for their mental wellbeing and resilience.
The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
Research tells us that that exercise has multiple mental health benefits including:
- Reducing stress, anxiety and depressive thoughts
- Improving mood, self-esteem, optimism and confidence
- Increasing concentration, creativity and stamina
- Nurturing connection, purpose and meaning in life
- Increasing sleep duration and quality (leading to all of the other benefits we get from sleep)
- Reducing the chances of developing degenerative diseases such as dementia
- Making us less prone to loneliness
Exercise is also scientifically proven as a preventative strategy against developing mental health disorders as well as a treatment for existing disorders.
How to stick to a new exercise habit
So we know why we should exercise for our mental and physical health, but how can we stick to it to ensure it becomes a habit? It’s super common to go into a new year with lots of good intentions to start an exercise program after an indulgent festive season. It’s also completely human to start enthusiastically and then give up on new habits after a week or so. 80% of people ditch their new year fitness resolutions by mid-February. Changing habits is hard!
Here are my top tips for starting as you mean to go on and actually sticking to those new habits so you can reap the full benefits of exercise for keeping you healthy in mind and body:
1. Choose something you like to do
Simple but important. If you don’t like doing it you won’t stick to it. Exercise doesn’t have to be a gruelling 1.5 hour gym session. It can be going out for a brisk walk with your dog, playing football, running around with your kids, or putting on your favourite songs and dancing around your living room. Any form of movement which increases your heart rate counts for as long as you are able or want to do it for.
It does need to be something intrinsic to be meaningful to you. This means the activity you choose will feel great in the moment and after. Exercising for extrinsic reasons for example solely for weight loss or to build muscle isn’t as effective long term.
If you are struggling to find where to start a good way to think about this is reflect on what you liked doing when you were a child and perhaps revisit those ideas. I wish my rollerskates still fitted!
2. Start small
If you had a pretty sedentary 2022 then attempting to go to the gym 5 days a week probably won’t be sustainable in the long term. The good news is that you can make lots of progress by doing small amounts of movement. Start with something more realistic, and achievable, and you’ll be surprised at how quickly a habit can build.
Research shows that small habits lead to sustainable long term behaviour change. There is also lots of evidence to support habit stacking as an effective way to introduce new habits and rewire the neural pathways in the brain. Habit stacking is linking a new habit to an existing one for example: What about trying 5 squats each time you put your kettle on for a cuppa? Or doing 10 tricep dips on your bath after you brush your teeth? Behaviourial change expert BJ Fogg has an excellent 5 day habit change course you can try for free on his website here.
3. Set yourself a goal
We all need an end result whether that be to run a 5K or do 1 press up. RED January encourages goal setting as part of the initiative. Couch to 5k is a great programme to follow if you’d like to start running. It’s much more motivating to have something to work towards no matter how big or small!
Write your goal down and stick it somewhere in your house you will see every day. Acknowledge to yourself when you have made small steps towards your goal and congratulate yourself – even if it’s just getting out of the house.
4. Do something which fits with your current routines
Again with an emphasis on ease. If you have a busy family life then movement needs to fit around your life. Choose something which slots in with how much time you have available, is within your financial means and is an activity your family will support you with. There are lots of great workouts you can do from your own home without an equipment on YouTube. Research tells us that it is much better to move consistently throughout the day rather than staying sedentary and then doing long workouts intermittently. So make your opportunities to move whenever you can as part of your current daily routine.
5. Move with other people
Research shows that you are much more likely to commit to an exercise session if you do it with another person. You can hold each other to account, enjoy the social aspect and feel great together after! Social connection is also great for our wellbeing more generally.
Why not try a music-based fitness class. Behaviourial science expert Kelly McGonigal in her book The Joy of Movement, talks about how exercising to music and in a group can be so rewarding and help us feel so great. Providing us with the benefits of movement as well as the feeling of connection and empowerment we get from music.
Here at Strategic Wellbeing we are excited to announce a new training programme: The Power of Exercise to Motivate the Mind. This session will cover how keeping fit and exercise can have such enormous benefits in the workplace and how exercise and movement can positively impact mental health. Participants will also gain lots of tips and tricks for how to develop healthy exercise habits to help them thrive in a personal and professional capacity. Visit the website here to find out more and to book.
If you or your organisation need support with moving for mental health please contact Louisa: firstname.lastname@example.org