With physical exercise being prescribed on the NHS as a form of therapy, we ask the experts which workouts best improve our mental wellbeing as well as our bodies
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?
If we weren't aware of the power exercise to relieve depression and anxiety, then lockdown and the Covid-19 pandemic, have brought it home to us. More than a third of UK adults are (38 per cent) are turning to regular exercise to improve their mood and relieve stress, according to a survey of more than 1000 Brits by health club Total Fitness. More than one in four people (27 per cent) use exercise to take a moment to themselves – particularly parents.
The most popular form of exercise according to the survey is running: ‘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; 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 per cent.
How often should you exercise for mental health benefits?
If three sessions a week sounds unachievable just now, don't worry, starting small with just one session a week once a week is enough to make a difference. 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.
GPs nationwide 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 to 14 weeks to reap the benefits of mood-elevating exercise.
For many of us, heath anxiety has spiked during the pandemic, and it's a motivational boost to know that by exercising we're doing the important job of supporting our immune systems, as well as helping to control weight gain - obesity is one of the factor that can worsen the effects of Covid-19.
(As an aside, exercise can also have a powerful effect on your lungs in that it may reduce the risk of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a major cause of death in patients with Covid-19, says leading exercise researcher Zhen Yan , PhD, of the University of Virginia School of Medicine).
Focusing on what you want to feel or rather than struggling with what you are fighting against shifts your energy towards something positive
The messaging around getting fit is finally beginning to shift from a focus on weight loss to mental health benefits. In an interview with the Sunday Times this week, the nation's self-appointed PE teacher Joe Wicks described HIIT exercise as "my antidepressant."
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 for mental health
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. 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…
What to do now: Walking is probably the most accessible of all exercises in the current climate and there's something ever-so satisfying about clocking up the steps on your activity tracker. For a little extra motivation invite your friends to the walking challenges on the FitBit app - you choose the duration (weekdays or weekend) and see how walks the most. It sends you reminders when your friends have overtaken you, inspiring you to start making strides - even if it is just around your house.
Peleton is currently offering a 30-day free trial and has walking workouts, which you can listen to on the go, to encourage you to get moving.
Yoga for mental health
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.”
Yoga's superpower when it comes to mental health benefits is the way it uses breathing, adds Victoria Woodhall , yoga teacher trained in positive psychology and GTG's Editorial Director. "Taking long deep steady breaths is a way of cutting through all those destructive thought loops that can be so hard to get out of. Calming the breath puts the nervous system into its rest and digest mode (the parasympathetic nervous system) and takes it out of the anxious or panicky fight-or-flight response, which is characterised by shallow rapid breathing.
"Simply by taking long slow out-breaths, which you are guided to do in a yoga class, you can trick your nervous system into feeling that you are not under attack and are safe." On top of that, she adds, yoga puts your body through all planes of movement and helps you see the word from new angles in interesting poses. "After a session of yoga, your problem-solving abilities tend to improve and you find a new perspective around whatever was bothering you. It helps you get unstuck both physically and mentally."
Not all yoga involves chanting but if your teacher starts the class with an Om or chant, there's a good mental health reason to join in. "Chanting and singing have been shown to tone the vagus nerve, which runs down the back of your throat and is an important regulator of your nervous system," says Victoria.
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. "Lose the perception that you have to be bendy or 'good at yoga' to do yoga," says Victoria. "It's not about how good you are at making 'yoga shapes', but how putting yourself in postures makes you feel on the inside. If it's any consolation, really bendy people may find certain poses so easy that they are not feeling any progression or developing their strength, leaving their mind to get distracted an wander."
The most important thing is to find a style that you like and will stick with. Look out for hatha, restorative or yin if you want to move at a slower pace (good if your mind normally races) or more active vinyasa flow and ashtanga styles to get your heart rate up (good if you feel sluggish) or if you are Type-A person who likes a sweaty challenge.
What to do in lockdown: Online yoga classes are one of the highlights of lockdown life, with everyone from Digme to RWL offering live stream sessions. Movement for Modern Life is offering a 14 day free trial of online classes and they offer some of the best Yin classes we've tried. On Instagram we've also been enjoying Fly LDN 's Chill classes for a 45 minutes hit of yin.
Swimming for mental health
While we can't currently head to the leisure centre or gym, this is 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 the 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.
What to do in lockdown: We acknowledge, swimming at the current time isn't the easiest, unless you happen to live near the sea and fancy a spot of wild swimming. And even then, it might be a bit chilly for a dip in the Channel. Swimming has a focus on regulating breathing in time with movement (which is exactly what yoga does too) so you may also like to try yoga or breath work. We've rounded up about eight techniques to strengthen your breathing and calm anxiety which may be helpful until it's time to dive back into the water.
HIIT workouts for mental health
High-intensity exercise has a reputation for increasing stress levels, 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:
“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 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.”
What to do in lockdown: HIIT workouts do translate well into online sessions and even if you're now working out with kids, Joe Wicks daily PE with Joe at 9am on YouTube is not just a full-on workout for all ages, it's a dose of happiness with general knowledge with quizzes and games to take your mind off the fact that you are really going for it.
Barry's Bootcamp offers daily live stream HIIT workouts which left us every bit as sweaty as 45 minutes spent in their studio. We also ran a four week series of HIIT sessions with Jessica Ennis-Hill that are well worth a try.
Spin biking and cycling for mental health
There's nothing quite like free-wheeling down a hill on your bike, feeling the wind in your hair blow the cobwebs (and worries) away.
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!”
“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.”
To that end, the instructors extensive training in bringing a positive mental energy to class, to make the whole experience uplifting. How does a spin bike class such as Psycle make you feel positive?
“As simple as it sounds, the first step to getting everyone focused is to connect them to their breath," says Rhian. We're getting the breath message by now when it comes to mental health and mind-body connection!
"We are prone to holding our breath during times of stress, so if you’re having a particularly stressful day 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 breath 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:
“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.”
“Sometimes I share personal information about my own life such as when my grandmother passed away - she was my idol. 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.”
"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.
Another instructor Kaya also shared her experience of undergoing an eating disorder .
We get emails from riders every week about how much exercising with us has helped them. 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.”
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 instill a greater sense of self-worth…
What to do in lockdown: If you have a bike, a good ride on that is definitely on the cards. While it's not the same as spinning (nobody encouraging you to change gears, for a start) it's a popular form of exercise for a reason. Many spin studios are loaning out bikes during lockdown so it's worth giving your favourite a call to see if they have any getting dusty that you could give a temporary home. Peloton bikes are also worth considering if you want to invest in a spin bike for life and enjoy fun live stream workouts with great playlists.
Dance for mental health
Dancing is 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 create a sense of community, which is emotionally supportive and encouraging.”
What to do in lockdown: It's easy to do dance classes from the comfort of your home - you don't need kettlebells or resistance bands; just you and your sense of rhythm (and the latter isn't even that important, as long as you're enjoying the session). Latin American boutique dance studio Dan's is running live classes on Instagram for you to join in. If Barre is your thing, Psycle has loads of barre workouts on their Instagram TV channel.
Rest for mental health
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.”
What to do in lockdown: Rest is something we're definitely not short of time to do at the moment, but if your lockdown life is every bit as busy as pre-corona times, it pays to set aside time specifically to rest. Gong is hosting online sound baths while meditation studio Re:Mind is live streaming crystal sound bowl sessions to bring serenity into your days.
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