We all know about the benefits of regular exercise on our bodies – whether it’s managing weight or boosting our cardiovascular health. But keeping fit can have a huge impact on our mental health, moods and happiness, too.
There’s a phrase bandied about by runners: “You never regret a run!” (#ne verregretarun). And if you’ve ever experienced the transformative effects of a run first hand, you’ll completely understand. Even if you really didn’t feel like doing it or you found every single step painful and challenging, you just know when you return home, you will feel that little bit better than you did before you left (probably a lot better).
In fact, according to a study at the University of Vermont, as little as twenty minutes of exercise can improve our mood for up to 12 hours.
"Moderate intensity aerobic exercise improves mood immediately and those improvements can last up to 12 hours," concluded study lead researcher Dr. Jeremy Sibold, assistant professor of rehabilitation and movement science at the University of Vermont, Burlington.
Here are just a few of the ways that exercise can put a smile on your face…
It releases ‘happy’ chemicals
The main reason for what is often described as ‘runner’s high’ is the body’s release of feel-good chemicals called endorphins. These neurochemicals are produced in the brain’s hypothalamus and pituitary gland when the body is under stress (such as during intensive exercise), and are structurally similar to the drug morphine. Like natural painkillers they are involved in natural reward circuits, such as feeding, drinking and sex, and activate opioid receptors in the brain that reduce discomfort and give you that euphoric buzz.
It reduces stress
Exercise can reduce stress in a number of ways. Physical activity may help the brain cope better with stress, according to research into the effect of exercise on neurochemicals involved in the body’s stress response. Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening and dancing have been proved to reduce anxiety and improve the mood.
A study by the University of Essex found that exercising in a natural, green area could be particularly beneficial for improving wellbeing. Exercise can also act as a welcome diversion from your worries – and if approached mindfully can even have a meditative effect. Exercise has also been found to have a boost self-esteem and aid sleep – both of which can have a positive effect on stress levels.
It clears your mind
If you have ever been stuck on a work problem or suffered a bout of writer’s block, you may be familiar with the head clearing power of a run or gym session. Once the blood gets pumping, it’s as though the mind becomes freed of clutter and hidden solutions are unlocked. Increasing evidence backs up this notion, suggesting that acute aerobic exercise is associated with improved cognitive function.
One study found evidence that exercise increases the flow of blood to the prefrontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with executive functions, planning complex cognitive behaviour and decision making, which could explain that feeling of clarity.
It combats depression
One of the side effects of depression can be feeling lethargic and lacking in energy, which might put you off getting active. But the NHS advises that regular exercise can boost your mood if you have depression, and is especially useful for people with mild to moderate depression.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that people with mild to moderate depression take part in around three sessions a week, lasting 45 minutes to one hour, over 10 to 14 weeks. Lots of GP surgeries across the country even prescribe exercise as a treatment for conditions such as depression.
It boosts your psychological wellbeing
A study into physical exercise and psychological wellbeing found that individuals who exercised at least two to three times a week experienced significantly less depression, anger, cynical distrust and stress than those exercising less frequently or not at all.
Regular exercisers also perceived their health and fitness to be better than less frequent exercisers. Those who exercised at least twice a week reported higher levels of sense of coherence and a stronger feeling of social integration than their less frequently exercising counterparts.