Many of us instinctively know that when we exercise we feel better. But, do we actually know why? And, in light of the current situation where lots of our normal routines are disrupted and many of us may be dealing with higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety as well as less sleep, how can we psychologically retain the drive to do it.
What are the mental health benefits of exercise?
Some of the mental benefits said to occur as a result of exercise are:
Help for depression and anxiety - Exercise releases chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin in our bodies. These chemicals are responsible for making us feel happy. Low levels of serotonin may contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety, and doing regular exercise may help to alleviate those feelings. Serotonin is considered a natural mood stabiliser.
Decreased stress - When we exercise, even performing low-intensity exercise, we can increase our heart rate. It is thought that an increased heart rate may stimulate the production of neurohormones that in turn improve cognition, mood and clouded thinking due to stress.
Better sleep - The exact cause for this is unknown. However, moderate aerobic exercise is suggested to increase the deep sleep we get. This is the stage of sleep where the brain and body have a chance to rejuvenate. Also, it's said that the post-exercise drop in our core body temperature may facilitate sleepiness, and exercise may help to shift our circadian rhythms (body clock).
Better brain power - Regular cardiovascular exercise creates new brain cells and improves overall brain performance. Due to it strengthening the hippocampus (part of the limbic system in our brain that has a role in consolidating information from short-term to long-term memory), exercise may prevent cognitive decline and memory loss.
Tips for motivating ourselves to exercise when our routine is disrupted
#1. Accept the disruption. Let’s not be too hard on ourselves. Our current situation is unprecedented. Accept that normal routines will be disrupted, and see it as an opportunity to create new and different ones.
#2. Set a goal for this time period. Whether it be walking a certain distance over the closedown period (within our bubble or immediate neighbourhood), or participating in a family or group challenge or something else. Find something that motivates you to do exercise. Our normal exercise routine may be disrupted, but there are other ways to stay active.
#3. Set a timer or alarm. This one is for those ‘I can’t be bothered moments’ - set an alarm on your phone, and treat it as if it's an important meeting. When your alarm goes off, make exercise your priority right then and there. Figure out if you feel better doing it in the morning or afternoon/evening and go from there.
#4. Do it with a friend. If you can, exercise with the others in your bubble. Do a family circuit or walk. If you don’t have anyone else in your bubble to do it with, tell a like-minded friend via phone, video or text message what you’re up to, or join a group online class. Other people’s support of your efforts will likely give you an additional mental self-confidence boost that makes it easier to put on your exercise gears the next time your alarm goes off.
#5. Write it down. If you’re finding it really hard to stay motivated, try writing a quick note to yourself immediately after you’ve done a session of exercise saying why you’re glad you’ve done it or how it makes you feel (fingers crossed you feel good!). Stick it on the fridge or bathroom mirror. It might help to motivate you next time.
Participating in exercise is always important physically, mentally and emotionally. Unfortunately, when other areas of life become difficult it can be hard to give exercise the priority it deserves. However now, more than ever, being active will be an integral part of the solution to staying ‘well’ during these lockdown times. So, we strongly encourage you to find what works for you and do it.
Stay well and stay active.
Footnotes and sources available on request.