Ultimate Guide to Exercise and Mental Health
Your mental health is so important to look after. Your brain controls how you think, how you feel and what you accomplish throughout your life.
The way you see the world is essentially a reflection of what is happening inside your mind. By looking after your mental health, your outlook on life will improve dramatically.
One of the best ways to improve mental health is through exercise and physical activity. But I had never even used exercise and mental health in the same sentence until after a life changing event.
I suffered a traumatic brain injury a few weeks before starting university. The head injury caused many problems that changed me physically, mentally and emotionally. I was struggling to form normal sentences. I was anxious all the time. I feared social situations. I also needed a helper to take notes for me in lectures. A big change from being a social straight-A student.
My first year of university was not looking good!
I was seeing a neurologist and speech pathologist for a while but I didn’t seem to be making any progress. I was feeling desperate, so I turned to Google in hopes I could speed up my recovery.
Google gave me the goods! I never knew how connected exercise and mental health were. Or that exercise could boost cognitive function and improve mental health.
Like most people, I knew it made me feel good after a workout. But that’s where I thought the benefits ended (more on benefits below).
Exercise and Brain Health
What happens to your brain when you exercise?
Your nervous system is the greatest pharmacist in the world – Dr Joe Dispenza
When you exercise, your brain and body responds in a specific way. A cascade of chemicals are released. These make you feel good, boost performance and protect your brain. This response is a coping mechanism to the stress/stimulus of exercise.
So, what are these magical chemicals? You’ve probably heard of at least one. Perhaps endorphins? Others include (but not limited to): dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine and brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
Fight or Flight Response
This coping mechanism is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. It is activated when we are put under stress. Whether it’s a physical stress like running. Or mental stress like worrying about the past or future. The physiological response is essentially the same.
There is one real difference though. The fight or flight response has always been there to help us physically move and get out of danger. Naturally we move during exercise. But it doesn’t happen during states of mental stress. And so without physically moving, this stress just builds and builds.
As you can see, the ‘fight or flight’ response was meant for physical situations. Like running away from danger or fighting an enemy. Not stressing over an argument with a friend, partner or family member. So, if you are constantly stressing yourself out, there is a simple solution. All you need to do is use the chemicals released by doing some physical activity.
Your brain and body is very good at protecting itself, adapting, growing and getting stronger. Which is why exercise is a great stimulus for improving your physical and mental health. It’s the perfect biohack.
16 Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
1. Reduce Stress
We have all felt the amazing release of stress after a good workout. Stress can be a good thing in the form of eustress but not if you are in distress. Stress levels can easily build up over a single day, week and of course years. If left unchecked, you could be significantly shortening your lifespan or worse.
2. Better Sleep
I always have the best sleep if I’ve done an intense HIIT or circuit training session the same day. Exercising helps you get a deeper restorative sleep. It also helps form good habits. And break bad ones that might have impacted your sleep. e.g. staying up late, watching too much Netflix, drinking too much, etc.
3. More Energy
When you exercise, your body and mind adapt so that it’s easier the next time. So it makes sense that the more energy you use throughout the day, the more your body and mind will adapt, therefore the more energy you will have.
4. Zest for Life
Incorporating exercise into your life has such a big impact on your mindset. Especially when forming healthy habits like a morning ritual that include some form of exercise or physical activity. By starting your day off with exercise, you end up starting the day as your best self. Don’t believe me? Try it and see for yourself 😉
5. Sense of purpose / on a mission
With regular exercise comes a sniper like focus on your biggest life goals, whatever they may be. Right now I’m on a mission to help others create the habits for lasting resilience and mental health. Exercise is the cornerstone and driver of my mission. What’s yours?
6. More self confidence
Your brain controls how you think, how you feel and what you accomplish throughout life. Consistent exercise helps boost confidence in many ways. It leads to better thought patterns. More feelings of wellbeing. And taking action to achieve your goals.
7. Prevent age-related cognitive decline
Research has shown that exercise can have long lasting neuroprotective effects. Even if you stop exercising. How good is that!?
8. Treat anxiety
Research has also shown that exercise is better at treating low to moderate levels of anxiety than taking prescription drugs. And with zero side effects!
9. Alleviate depression
In addition, exercise has also been shown to alleviate low to moderate levels of depression. Again with no side effects compared to taking prescription drugs. Exercise even works in synergy with prescription drugs when treating more extreme levels of depression.
10. Boost brain performance
There are heaps of studies on the cognitive boosting abilities of different types of exercise. From improving different types of memory (e.g. short, long, spatial) to more focus and better problem solving. In addition, I’ve experienced first hand the brain boosting power of exercise. It helped me recover from a traumatic brain injury to finishing my first year of university with flying colors!
11. Ability to cope with life stressors in a healthier way
When you’ve had a stressful day, have you ever felt like you just NEED a beer, glass of wine or whiskey on the rocks? I know I have and have done so plenty of times in the past. While this does relieve stress it’s only a temporary fix, which often makes things worse in the long run. Exercise is a much healthier way to cope with stressful life events.
12. Feel more relaxed
Exercise has this amazing ability to make you feel relaxed. It’s like the difference being ‘thinking’ and ‘being’ in relation to mindfulness. More on mindfulness in a future blog post. Exercise helps you feel relaxed because your body and mind are in equilibrium.
13. Higher productivity
Studies have shown that exercise leads to higher productivity and learning capacity. I like to spend the first few hours of each day getting the most important tasks done. Then exercising and then attacking the next round of tasks with a fresh mind.
14. Increased creativity
Albert Einstein once said, ‘“we can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them”. Firstly, exercise helps free yourself from the incessant chatter in your head. Then it primes your mind with elevated levels of feel-good chemicals. Leaving you to think clearly and creatively.
15. Become a role model
This is one of those benefits that you usually won’t even realise. As you go through a personal development phase, your friends and family will begin to notice and see the epic changes happening in your life. You inevitably become a role model.
16. Be better
We only have one shot at this thing called life so don’t waste it. Look after your brain, mind and mental health; the most important assets you have to live a rich and fulfilling life.
Best Exercise for Mental Health
What types of exercise should I do?
As long as you are physically active in one way or another, you can be sure of some mental health benefits.
BUT, it is possible to maximize your brain performance and mental health through exercise.
Below I will discuss different exercise types and their effects on brain performance and mental health.
Running and mental health
Have you ever experienced ‘runner’s high’ during and/or following a good running session? If you have, then you know how amazing the feeling is. If you haven’t, then I strongly recommend giving running a go (or something similar if you don’t like or can’t run for some reason). This form of exercise gets your heart pumping and delivering more nutrient rich blood to the brain.
Running is usually always done at low to moderate intensity, where you stay within your aerobic heart rate zone (60-80% of your maximum heart rate). This is the sweet spot to gain maximum mental health benefits from running.
Running is a great way to start each day due to its brain priming effects, which gives you a cognitive boost.
HIIT and mental health
High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) is a form of exercise where you go hard for a bit, then rest, go hard, then rest. One of the most well known HIIT work/rest ratios is the Tabata Protocol. You work out for 20 seconds as hard as you can, then rest for 10 seconds and then repeat this for a total of 4 minutes. With only 4 minutes of exercise, you can trigger a huge release of brain boosting chemicals. Mainly neurotrophic factors like BDNF, IGF-1 and VEGF. The more intense the exercise, the more your brain upregulates the expression of these genes.
HIIT is quite different to running. It’s much more intense but usually a shorter duration. With running, you should be able to have a conversation with someone. But with HIIT, you should be going at your 100% (I’ve vomited many times after a HIIT session). The intensity results in a slightly different physiological response, which should be used as a stress reliever. The high intensity means more stress on the body, which means more endorphins being released.
HIIT will make you feel amazing! But it might not boost your cognitive ability in the moment (in fact it’s done the opposite for me on some occasions when I’ve gone to absolute failure). So, use HIIT once or twice a week at the end of the day when you are most stressed.
Weight training and mental health
We all know weight training is used to increase muscle mass, gain strength and lose fat. But did you know there have been studies showing weight training to improve cognitive function?
One of the cool benefits of weight training is the increase in IGF-1 levels. IGF-1 (short for Insulin-like Growth Factor-1) is a neurotrophin responsible for the growth, repair and strengthening of brain cells.
Note: when IGF-1 levels increase, so do your human growth hormone levels. These are some of the hormones responsible for increasing your lean muscle mass, gaining strength and losing fat.
What’s the best way to get started with exercise? And stay motivated?
Why is it often easier to start a fitness program than it is to maintain one?
We’ve all been there. Decided to make a big change in our lives, which involved signing up to a gym membership or starting a new workout program from home. Perhaps you even invested in some supplements and new equipment. And then for some reason, you stop after a couple weeks.
There are some common reasons why this happens.
The first reason is often the biggest but most people don’t even know about it. When you start a exercising after having not done anything physical in a while, you tend to be overly excited. This excitement leads to exercising at a higher intensity, for longer and more frequently than your body can handle. This inevitably leads to burnout with symptoms including: low energy, lethargy, poor sleep and moodiness.
So it’s important to start small and progressively overload your body. This is actually much better in the long term as you slowly but surely develop healthy habits. Going hard all at once is usually always a recipe for failure.
Injuring yourself is another common reason why people don’t stick to their exercise program. Injury is always more likely if you are exercising too much without adequate rest. But it’s also likely if you aren’t warming up and cooling down properly.
Static Stretching vs Dynamic Stretching
As a personal trainer this is one of the biggest mistakes I see. I’m referring to the type of stretching done before a workout. Let’s say you are going for a run. Do you get straight into trying to touch your toes for a hamstring stretch? If so, you are making yourself more prone to injury. Static stretching helps your muscles relax and should be done after your workout, not before.
Note: static stretching is only ever done before you workout IF you have a clear range of movement problem. Even then you would perform dynamic stretching following to properly warm up your muscles.
I’ll write another article on how to properly stretch before exercising but just know that you should be dynamically stretching. i.e. using movement to stretch your muscles. A proper warm up increases blood flow to the working muscles, lubricates your joints with synovial fluid and primes your central nervous system (CNS).
What do you enjoy doing?
If you hate running, then don’t go running. There are many exercises that are classified as aerobic that you can get into. e.g. walking (usually fast paced), biking, swimming, etc.
Also, think about the reasons why you don’t enjoy certain types of exercise… Are they too hard? Too boring? Too easy? Whatever the reason, there’s usually a workaround. For example, I often find running to be really boring. So to spice things up, I listen to a new podcast every time I go for a run. Imagine how much you could learn in a week, month or year if you listened to a new podcast or audio book each time you went for a run… Just some food for thought 😉
Start with your WHY
Why do you get up in the morning? This is a question that will change the course of your life if you are honest with yourself. Knowing your why will help you make important decisions in your life. Whenever you are faced with a decision, you can ask yourself whether or not it will help you achieve your WHY.
If you aren’t living the life of your dreams, there’s a reason for that and it often starts with your mindset. If you want to do more, see more and accomplish more, then you need to be a better version of yourself. Using exercise and mental health boosting strategies is a great start to living your dream.
Set SMART Goals
Most people have heard of SMART goals but many brush it off as some fluffy exercise that doesn’t get results. This is so far from the truth. If you know what your end goal is, then it’s easy to break it down into smaller, more manageable steps. Many people are surprised at how easy it is to achieve a goal once it’s broken down.
Sometimes the goals aren’t achievable so instead of living in a state of hope, the goal can be re-assessed and set in a smarter way.
I won’t go too far into this but SMART goals are:
What are your weaknesses?
Knowing your weaknesses is crucial to the success of an exercise program. By knowing them, you will be able to plan for setbacks and challenges that usually always come up.
So, let’s say one of your weaknesses is drinking too much alcohol on the weekends. There’s nothing wrong with going out for a social drink but let’s say your weakness is having a few too many.
The extra couple beers you had is going to result in a poor sleep later that night. Perhaps a hangover the next day, which might affect your planned workout first thing Monday morning. If you don’t feel like exercising it’s very easy to put it off until the next day. Or not do it at all.
So if this or something similar is your weakness, you will need to make plans in advance to do something different on the weekends. Or perhaps socialise with different people. Or you could tell your current friendship group that you are doing an exercise program and invite them to join.
Whatever your weakness, it all starts with awareness. Once you’re aware of your weakness, you can plan accordingly.
Find an exercise partner
Sometimes exercise is so much better with a partner. I prefer to run and bike by myself while I listen to podcasts but doing a HIIT workout or weight training is always better with a partner.
In addition, you are much more likely to stick to your exercise program if you have an exercise partner that is holding you accountable (and you to them).
Mental Health Exercise Guidelines
I recommend starting small and doing just one session per exercise type each week. i.e. do one running session, one weight training session and one high intensity interval training session (HIIT) per week.
Exercise and Mental Health for Beginners
Running = 1x per week
Weight Training = 1x per week
HIIT = 1x per week
You could structure your week as follows:
Monday – Rest
Tuesday – HIIT
Wednesday – Running
Thursday – Rest
Friday – Weight Training
Saturday – Rest
Sunday – Rest
Please note that it’s difficult to give a one size fits all program so please take these guidelines as just guidelines. Please consult a doctor or exercise professional before starting a new program. Also refer to the physical activity guidelines from the World Health Organisation (WHO) for more information.
It’s time to take action!
So now you know that exercise and mental health go hand in hand.
Using exercise for mental health benefits is one of the best things I have ever done and I strongly recommend doing so yourself.
Exercise is a great way to biohack your body and mind!
If you need mental stress relief, exercise is your solution.
If you need a mental boost, exercise is your solution.
If you want to be a better version of yourself, exercise is definitely your solution.