Getting the right amount of movement each week is important to good mental wellbeing. Whenever we do exercise, our bodies release endorphins to reward us.
Endorphins are the body’s pleasure chemicals, making us feel good, encouraging us to keep exercising. However, each time we do some exercise, the amount of endorphins we receive is reduced, which motivates us to do more or try something different; so if you are a finely tuned athlete you will need to do more exercise to get more feel-good rewards. But for most people, just doing thirty minutes of exercise a few times a week is enough to significantly improve mood.
Research shows that regular exercise can be just as effective as medication at lifting depression and reducing anxiety. However, with exercise, you don’t have the potential unpleasant side effects and it can be effective at raising mood much more quickly than medication.
Movement also helps reduce high levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In small amounts, cortisol is useful to gently alert the cells in our body and brain, and activate our defences against injuries and infections. However, if our emotional needs are poorly met, the increased levels of stress cause more cortisol to be released. High levels of cortisol can damage brain cells and cause physical inflammation. It can also inhibit the immune system, making us more vulnerable to bugs and viruses.
If stress goes unaddressed it can trigger a number of physical conditions too, such as high blood pressure, obesity, diabetes, stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, skin conditions including eczema, and alopecia, and heart conditions. Low-intensity exercise, such as going for a brisk walk, reduces cortisol levels.
There may be another reason to be physically active too; brains only exist in animals which need to move. A plant doesn’t have a brain, because it doesn’t need to move; animals, on the other hand, have brains as we need to plan how we will move to get food, keep warm and stay safe. But if we don’t use the brain to move about, then connections in the brain start to wither away. Research shows, for example, that if we spend too much time at a desk, or on the sofa, without regular breaks to get up and move about, we are at increased risk of depression. If we don’t use the brain, we lose the brain.
So meeting the need to move, improves our mood by making us feel good, reduces the effects of stress, and protects the brain too.
Head of Mental Health Education