The importance of physical activity for your mental wellbeing
There are many reasons why physical activity is good for your body – having a healthy heart and improving your joints and bones are just two of the most obvious, but it is also beneficial for your mental health and wellbeing.
I believe that physical activity should not be seen as something we have to do, but as something that we choose to do because we value the benefits it brings to our overall wellbeing.
Being active doesn’t have to mean participating in organised sport or going to the gym; there are numerous ways to be active so I think it's best to try and find one that works for you. For me, its walking (in its many forms) and playing football with friends twice a week.
Let's go back to the beginning
Fundamentally, physical activity means any body movement that uses your muscles and consumes energy. One of the great things about physical activity is that there are many possibilities and there will be something to suit almost everyone. The latest recommendations state that the average adult should do between 75 and 150 minutes of exercise a week. This could be moderately intense exercise, such as walking, hiking or bike riding, or it could be more strenuous activities, such as running, swimming, football or aerobics. All activity that raises your heart rate or makes you breathe harder counts towards your weekly total.
What do we mean by wellbeing?
The UK government defines wellbeing as ‘a positive physical, social and mental state’. Mental wellbeing does not have a single universal definition, but it does encompass factors such as:
Feeling good about yourself and being able to function well individually or in relationships
Being able to manage the ups and downs of life; coping with challenges and embracing opportunities
Feeling connected to your community and surroundings
Having control and freedom over your life
A sense of purpose and feeling appreciated
Mental wellbeing does not mean being happy constantly and it doesn’t mean that you won’t experience grief, loss, or failure, for example; these emotions are a part of normal life. Mental wellbeing is about having the means to manage these testing emotions and being physically active may help you to lead a mentally healthier life and increase your wellbeing.
The impact on wellbeing
Physical activity has huge potential to enhance our wellbeing; I find a couple of 10 minute brisk walks during my working day increases my mental alertness, energy and positive mood. Taking part in regular physical activity can also increase self-esteem, reduce stress and alleviate anxiety. I’ve also found, anecdotally through colleagues, friends and family, that activity can play a role in improving the quality of life for those going through mental health problems such as depression.
The impact on mood
Physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on mood. A study asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g. going for a walk or doing housework), and periods of inactivity (e.g. reading a book or watching television). The research found that participants felt more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity.
The impact on stress and stressors
When events occur that feel threatening or that upset our natural balance in some way, our body’s defences take over and create a stress response, which may make us feel a variety of uncomfortable physical symptoms and make us behave differently, and we may also experience more intense emotions. Some common physical signs of stress include problems sleeping, increased levels of sweating, and loss of appetite. Symptoms like these are triggered by a rush of stress hormones in our body. These hormones, adrenaline and noradrenaline, raise blood pressure, increase heart rate and increase perspiration; our bodies are preparing for an emergency response. Physical activity can be highly effective in relieving stress; research on people in employment found that those who were highly active tended to have lower stress rates compared to those less active.
The impact on self-esteem
Activity can also lead to increases in self-esteem. Self-esteem is a key indicator of our mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with life stressors.
The impact on depression and anxiety
Physical activity can be used an alternative treatment for depression. It can be used as a standalone treatment or in conjunction with medication and/or psychological therapy. It has few side effects and does not have the stigma that some people perceive to be attached to taking antidepressants or attending psychotherapy and counselling. Particularly powerful for me is that physical activity is available to all, has little or no cost and can be an empowering approach to enable self-management.
Where to start?
Once you have decided that you want to be more active, there are a few things worth taking the time to consider. Apart from improved physical and mental wellbeing, what else do you want to get out of being active? Think hard about whether you’d prefer being indoors or outside, being active on your own or as part of a group. Maybe you’d like to try something new (I went along to an archery taster session). If you have nightmares about P.E at school or feel uninspired by limiting yourself to just one activity, think laterally and remember that going on a walk, doing housework, and gardening are all physical activities. Lastly, it's important to remember that social support is a great motivating factor, and sharing your experiences, aspirations and successes will help to maintain enthusiasm and focus.
Conquering those pesky obstacles
It can be scary making life changes and most people get anxious about trying something new. Common barriers such as cost, injury/illness, lack of energy, fear of failure, etc may prevent you from even starting; however, practical and emotional support from friends, family and professionals can help. Body confidence may also act as a barrier to physical activity; people anxious about how their body may look to others whilst taking part in activities may avoid these activities as a result. Taking part with a friend may help reduce anxiety about how your body looks to others, and may be particularly helpful during the early stages of a new activity as you learn more about what your body can (and occasionally can’t!) do.
Make the time
What time do you have available for exercise? You may need to rearrange commitments to make room for new activities, or choose something that can fit into your existing schedule. It is also worth experimenting with physical activity at different times of the day as people have different preferences for when they feel ready to proceed. Personally, I prefer activity earlier in the day and then to use my evenings to relax. But, it’s a personal choice.
Be practical about it
Will you require support from friends and family to complete your chosen activities, or is there a chance your active lifestyle could have an impact on others in your life? Find out if there will be a cost involved and, if required, what could you do to make it affordable. For me, walking is the best for this. Appropriate clothing, pair of shoes and I’m away!
Making it part of your daily routine
Adopting a more active lifestyle can be as simple as doing tasks more energetically or making small changes to your routine, walking up the stairs rather than using the lift or parking slightly further away from where you need to be are easy, quick examples. The point is, you need to make it work for you.
It’s really important to carefully and clearly define aspirations to aid in measuring your performance and progress. A simple pedometer on your phone to measure the number of steps taken, a tally chart to tot up the number of lengths done in the pool or just the number of hours spent in the garden on a Saturday can all help to retain focus and ultimately improve your overall wellbeing. However, it is also important to remember that making the commitment to a physical activity and following through with it is an achievement in itself; every session of activity can improve your mental health and wellbeing.
At home, work or out and about
For some, issues of time, mobility and caregiving responsibilities may restrict where you are able to carry out physical activity. However, there are lots of activities you can do without leaving your home that involve minimal cost; it could be speeding up the housework, doing an exercise DVD in the lounge or simply doing the gardening with more enthusiasm than usual.
Being at work can bring out more issues. For whether you’re on your feet, sat at a desk or behind the wheel driving whilst working, there are ways you can be more active. Using the stairs for trips less than four floors, walking or cycling a more circular route home, or using your lunch break to take a brisk walk are all reasonably easy adaptations that you can make to your working day; the change of landscape may be positive for you too.
Being outside can be a prime time for boosting your activity levels, and research has suggested that activity in an outdoor, ‘green’ environment has greater positive effects on wellbeing compared to indoor physical activity. Some examples of simple outdoor activities include: walking instead of driving for shorter journeys, getting off the bus a stop earlier that you usually do to joining in with your children’s sports practice. Leaving the car at home may also result in more money saved from having to fill up less regularly!
For me, the most obvious benefits from increased activity are:
I feel more relaxed
I feel better in myself (difficult one to quantify!)
I sleep better at night
I’m more productive during the day
The things that previously caused me stress no longer do
Increased social interaction
If you would like some help exploring these ideas, please feel free to get in touch for a free consultation.