Fitness

7 exercises to boost your mental health

October 5th 2017 / Anna Hunter / 0 comment

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With physical exercise being prescribed on the NHS as a form of therapy, we ask the experts how to go about working out to improve our mental wellbeing, as well as our physique

We all know that working out can make us more powerful in terms of physical strength, but how many of us map out fitness goals with the aim of seeing our mental health improve? ‘Runner’s high’ is a well known endorphin fuelled phenomenon, but it’s not just sprinting into the distance that gives your mood a leg-up, as a study by researchers at University College London found that increasing activity levels from nothing to taking part in three exercise sessions a week reduced the risk of depression by around 20%. Can't quite bring yourself to three sessions all at once? A study in 2017 by an Australian research team found that 12 per cent of cases of depression could be prevented if participants took part in just one hour of physical activity each week - so even starting small makes a huge difference.

GPs nationwide now prescribe exercise as a treatment for depression, among other conditions, and The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that those suffering from mild to moderate depression take part in three activity sessions ranging from 45 minutes to an hour in duration over a period of 10-14 weeks to reap the benefits of mood-elevating exercise.

Despite the fact that, in the UK, only 65.5% of men and 54% of women met the Department of Health’s weekly exercise target of 2.5 hours of moderate intensity activity, the messaging around getting fit is finally beginning to shift from a focus on weight loss to a promotion of mental health benefits. There’s evidence that general wellbeing gains are becoming more and more appealing to us as consumers too, as Mintel reports that one in four of us have joined a gym or fitness club with de-stressing and relaxing as our main priority, while 14% of us are looking to meet new people and connect socially with others.

From reduced anxiety to clearer thinking and increased self-esteem when we see positive changes to our physical fitness or social life, working out really can be a great way to work through mental health problems, but finding the right kind of exercise and environment can be key to reaping the psychological rewards of getting sweaty. Here are a few ideas of activities that have been known to give mental health sufferers a lift, other in more ways than one…

Walking

The simplest, most accessible and most affordable exercise of all, don’t knock a bit of a ramble until you’ve tried it. Clinical Hypnotherapist and Master Life Coach Jacqueline Hurst endorses putting one foot in front of the other in order to improve mental wellbeing:

“My top suggestion here is that any exercise is a great idea. It really doesn’t have to be hours at the gym, a small ten minute walk in nature can be of huge benefit to mental health. What is very important to remember is that moving your body, in a way that is effortless and enjoyable, is the best way to start. Don’t put too many harsh goals down. If you do that it will be less likely that you will want to do it, and in turn it just doesn’t get done.”

Research has found that low-intensity aerobic activity is the best form of exercise for encouraging positive thoughts and improving alertness, so starting off slow and building up pace and distance as you go could have a big payoff in terms of making mental health strides. Gentle, low impact exercise may also be the best choice initially if you suffer with a physical health problem or are prone to panic attacks, which can affect breathing. Speaking of more low impact movement…

Yoga

Perhaps a bit of an obvious choice, but if you’d like to complement walking with something a little more dynamic or stretching (literally and mentally), yoga could be just the thing, as Jacqueline explains:

“If you love gentle movement, go for yoga. It’s very soothing, and it’s always the first activity on my list for helping people to get in touch with themselves; starting to focus and connect with your breath, and your body, can be very powerful. It’s hard to hide when you’re in your mat and in the zone, and that in itself can be really therapeutic.”

If you’re struggling to establish a mind-body connection in other forms of exercise, schedule in a yoga session and see how it makes you feel, although you may want to opt for a less vigorous style at first to get your head in the game; look out for Hatha and Kundalini classes for a slower pace, before graduating to the more active Vinyasa and Ashtanga styles to get your heart rate up.

In London? Check out our pick of the best yoga studios in the capital.

Swimming

Another low-impact, non weight-bearing option, Jacqueline has seen clients experience a mental health boost by incorporating just ten minutes of swimming into their daily routine. The most important thing is whether or not you enjoy it; if you hate every second in the water, get out and give something else a go instead. Feeling enthused about the activity you do take part in is as important as the physical benefits you’ll gain, as Jacqueline emphasises:

“Think about how you are going to feel afterwards and also notice how you are thinking about the exercise beforehand. In other words, when you get your mind right, you get the right actions out of it. You have to have the right thoughts in your mind first before you take the action.”

A bit rusty? Read our top tips on being a better swimmer here. If the thought of gliding through water or going for a brisk stroll aren’t really lighting your fire, by all means step it up - HIIT swimming is a thing too you know - but remember that even getting the most out of a HIIT session involves being in a positive headspace.

Just because your best friend trains five times a week doesn’t mean that you need to

HIIT

High intensity exercise has a reputation for increasing stress levels, but owing to a surge in cortisol and adrenaline, but as you become more active you should find that your body adapts to this, learns to cope and becomes more resilient over time, which could support stress coping strategies in daily life. Barry’s Bootcamp co-owner and Master Trainer Sandy Macaskill certainly believes that bursts of exercise can help, rather than hinder, mental health:

“I'm no doctor, but anecdotal evidence from speaking to clients is that exercising is a great form of getting out of your head space for a period of the day, to stop stressing and to focus on something positive. And then there's the endorphin hit you get from exercise which in my mind is the best part of it.”

“I think literally everyone has that moment when they walk into class, the music starts, the lights go down, the instructor takes over your thinking for 60 minutes, and you can simply switch off that little voice in your head. Instead of worrying about life’s problems, you concentrate your energy on achieving a target that you’ve set yourself, be it running a little faster or lifting a little heavier. I call it getting inside the ‘bootcamp bubble’. Then when everyone leaves they're straight back on their mobiles. Everyone needs that hour of ‘me’ time, especially in hectic London.”

Taking a bit of mental time out can be one of the main rewards of getting moving, and Sandy thinks that disengaging from the rat race and external pressures is a fundamental skill to develop throughout exercise, like flexing a muscle:

“I say it about a million times each class: stop thinking. Or if you must think, make it about why you're there and what you're trying to achieve. As soon as that little voice pops up with this excuse, that excuse, or that niggling self-doubt, shut it out.”

Focussing on what you want to feel or achieve rather than struggling with what you are fighting against shifts your energy towards something positive

Cycling

Leaving the outside world at the door doesn’t just apply to bootcamps, or those working out for that matter. Psycle CEO and instructor Rhian Stephenson says that improving mental health was built into the blueprint of Psycle’s spin class concept:

“The psychological side was absolutely a consideration when we started Psycle - it’s just as important as the physical aspect to us! Exercise has been shown to significantly improve so many aspects of mental health; from stress relief to happiness to mental clarity and concentration and memory. It’s been proven to help anxiety and depression. It decreases stress hormones that affect our mood in a negative way and increases our happiness hormones. It helps with motivation, confidence and resilience. It has been shown to delay cognitive decline and dementia in the ageing population. It improves reasoning, problem solving skills and executive function...I could go on!”

“All of this was a part of the foundation of how we approach everything we do at Psycle. We didn’t want Psycle to be like so many other fitness concepts that place all of the attention on losing weight and getting ‘beach body ready’ - that happens either way. We wanted Psycle to be about energy, happiness and pushing your limits. To be the place where you come to give something back to yourself.”

Rhian ensures that her team approaches the company’s unique and uplifting spin classes with a positive mental attitude that can only be described as infectious, by way of a bit of TLC and mental prep:

“It’s so important to be able to stay positive and get into the right frame of mind before teaching a class. No matter what is going on in their personal or professional life that day, the instructors need to be able to switch into leader mode and focus only on the good energy.”

“Mental preparation is a big focus for our training program in the Psycle academy - we go through a lot of different exercises that are designed to help to prepare them to switch off the outside world before a class. Ultimately, every instructor crafts their own ritual or routine, it can be anything from a mantra to a meditation, physical warm up or even just lying on the floor and listening to a song that pumps them up. Self care is a huge aspect of being an instructor and we work with them extensively to ensure that they have the ability to bring their best to each class. As instructors we need to remember that it’s not about us, it’s about the riders who show up every day.”

Just how do you attain such a focus pre-workout? A basic physical exercise could hold the key to fine tuning your mood, as Rhian reveals:

“As simple as it sounds, the first step to getting everyone focused is to connect them to their breath. We are prone to holding our breath during times of stress, so if you’re having a particularly stressful day or week there’s a pretty good chance that your breathing pattern will be stiff and shallow, which just perpetuates the situation. In order to change your state it’s so important to get back to your breath, so giving the riders that first little bit of focus is really important. After that, it’s about concentrating on goals or visualisations. Getting the riders to focus on what they want to feel or achieve rather than struggling with what they are fighting against shifts their energy towards something positive, and it instantly relaxes people.”

Still feeling anxious? Rhian’s team are trained to put you at ease, opening up and revealing their own fears so you that you don’t feel isolated or out of your depth:

“It completely depends on the class, but sometimes it’s as simple as just asking the room a question - if they’ve had a bad day, or are feeling tired, or simply doing anything that will acknowledge the tension. That in itself usually can get rid of it. Once people feel like they aren’t alone in it and it’s okay to feel that way then usually the anxiety subsides and people have permission to just be exactly how they are in that moment.”

“It’s about relieving the pressure and letting them know that the next 45 minutes is for them and whatever they want to get out of it is valid. Sometimes I share personal information about my own life. For example, when my grandmother passed away - she was my idol and so important to me. At the start of the class I shared that with everyone and I asked if we could all just set aside anything we were feeling at that moment and dedicate that first song to her - that we could all ride together for my grandmother and for anyone special in their lives that they loved and the result was beautiful and absolutely electric. So many people came up to me after class and shared amazing stories about their loved ones or how inspiring it was and it felt like everyone in the room was completely connected. Sometimes you need to show your own vulnerability to get the best out of people.”

“That’s obviously an extreme example, but we see thousands of people every week so it’s such a shared human experience that people will be going through everyday. It’s so easy to get completely overwhelmed and weighed down by the stresses of day to day life, but if you peel everything back and focus on what’s really significant to you instead of focusing on the stress, it can give a great perspective and a new clarity on how to handle stress in the moment.”

“An instructor of ours, Sophia, bravely shared that Psycle got her over her post-natal depression, which I really admire because it’s one of those issues that’s still so taboo, and very few women feel comfortable talking about it. We get emails from riders every week about how much exercising with us has helped them - it’s what makes the job so rewarding! Another instructor Kaya also shared her experience of undergoing an eating disorder, which you can read about on our blog.”

“One of our most touching emails came from a woman who was going through a painful divorce - she was depressed, lethargic and felt hopeless and her friend dragged her to Psycle. It was the first time in over a year that she had felt connected to herself and to other people and slowly she started coming more and more. She wrote us a beautiful letter about how it was the only thing that got her through the pain and challenges of her divorce. It was wonderful.”

You’ll see that it’s not necessarily the activity itself that helps you to turn a corner, but your connection to it, although subtle physical cues can instil a greater sense of self worth…

Dance

Dancing is often often associated with being happy, but even if you’re not feeling on top of the world, getting yourself into the rhythm can mean that self-esteem gradually increases as you lose yourself in the moves. Xtend Barre London founder Catie Miller has seen many of her clients walk away taller both physically and figuratively after ballet style classes:

“I love barre because not only does it relieve stress and make you focus on the present, but it also improves posture, which makes a big difference when it comes to self-confidence. The ballet aspect of Xtend Barre, for instance, allows those who are new to dance the opportunity to move in ways that they are not used to, which brings with it a wonderful sense of freedom and release.”

“I always say that this kind of activity goes a lot deeper than a plié - I love seeing our clients feeling safe, accomplished and proud in the studio and beyond. I remember bumping into a client in a coffee shop who had tears in her eyes expressing how much Xtend Barre has changed her life during and after her pregnancy, both physically and mentally. It’s not just about the exercise; our classes creates a sense of community, which is emotionally supportive and encouraging.”

Rest

Technically not an exercise, but incorporating R&R into any fitness routine is vital for both mental and physical health, as fixating on exercise can damage mental health, rather than nurture it, as Jacqueline underlines:

“While exercise really can be a form of therapy, I do want to point out that exercise can also be an addiction. so it is very important to remind yourself of the word ‘balance’. Going from say, being hooked on having a couple of glasses of wine a night to being addicted to putting the hours in at the gym is actually just swapping one form of addiction for another.”

“Exercise as with everything in life should be about moderation. Too much of anything can be damaging, and you have to work out what is right for you. Just because your best friend trains five times a week doesn’t mean that you need to. Ten minutes a day is a great start, and you can work around that to fit your schedule. Balance to me is about two or three times a week, but I do think that moving your body should always be a priority. Think about the caveman, we are still ultimately made by that model and we still need to move around to keep our bodies happy, supple and healthy. The times to make exercise a prerogative is when it works for you, not against you. In other words, if you have a crazy week at work, focus on that and don’t berate yourself.”

Struggling to schedule it all in? Here are 10 tips to make fitting fitness into your week a LOT easier...


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