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Does exercise improve your mental health?
It may seem obvious, but does sport and exercise actually improve your mental health? And in the wake of a global crisis that has left many silently suffering, could taking up physical activity be the answer to a brighter future? 
It’s been a year or two like no other. 
 
Although some are excited by the prospect of going on holiday or visiting their favourite pub or restaurant, this isn’t the case for everyone. 
 
In the wake of the pandemic some people are just coping. The mental toll of loss, isolation and more is often hidden from the rest of the world. 
 
We recognise not everyone’s had it ok. If this is you, what can you do? 
 
Of course, talking to other people is important but we also have stories of people who have benefited from doing swimming or other activities as a way of recovering. 
 
Your first thought when hearing about exercise might not be a positive one but the impact on your mental health is widely recognised. 
 
If you’d not considered it, we’ve got some ways it can help and some potential options you could consider even you don’t think of yourself as particularly sporty. 

The impact of Covid-19 on people’s mental health 

It’s been talked about a lot and I’m sure everybody has felt some tinge of fear or anxiety over the last 2 years. 
 
However, there is growing evidence to suggest there have been lasting consequences to individual’s mental health and a rise in cases of people suffering. 
 
There are many reasons for this. It might be anxiety and depression linked to the threat of the virus or loss of jobs or feelings of isolation, hopelessness, and grief that could stay around for some time. 
 
Isolation particularly will have been harder on single people living alone and the reliance on technology for connection and communication will have only increased this sense of isolation, through no fault of their own. 
 
People with existing mental health conditions will have been amongst some of the worst affected and may not have been able to access the help and services they need as easily. 
 
What’s clear is that these consequences may linger for some time even as things open up and the pandemic subsides. 
Chart showing mental health increase
Chart showing how mental health was affected during the first lockdown, usually as a result of economic circumstances. 

Is exercise the answer to improving poor mental health? 

The good news with things opening up and the sun coming out is that it does allow us to take part in more activities that could be beneficial to our mental health. 
 
Studies have shown that exercise has a positive impact on mental health and although research is still continuing in this area to determine, amongst other things, how exactly it has an impact, we can safely come to the conclusion that it’s worth doing. 
 
For some it won’t be the answer as their mental illness may be a barrier to them attempting exercise in the first place. 
 
But for many others it could be exactly what they need and there’s no denying the positive impact exercise can have on our lives in general. 
 
So how exactly does it help? As we mentioned above, there is not a universal consensus on how exactly physical activity positively impacts mental health but these are fairly universally recognised reasons. 
Releases feel good hormones 
 
When you exercise, a number of hormones such as dopamine are released. This increased brain activity helps your mood improve. 
 
Helps you sleep better 
 
It might seem self-explanatory but after expending energy and working out, your body is much more likely to fall asleep. 
 
This is particularly helpful if your mental illness means you struggle with sleep. Exercise will tire you out and give you a reason to hit the hay. 
 
Boosts sense of accomplishment and self-esteem 
 
The other benefit of sport-based exercise is that you come away feeling like you’ve accomplished something. 
 
Maybe it’s a case of challenging yourself to do something you didn’t previously think you could do. 
 
By hitting a milestone or simply achieving something tangible you can give your self-esteem a massive boost; a real help if one of your takeaways from recent times is that you haven’t achieved much. 
 
A healthy distraction 
 
Sport and exercise acts as a distraction from the rest of life as you’re forced to focus on the activity at hand. Rather than letting negative thoughts take over you are allowing your mind to be occupied by the physical activity. 
 
Often, we turn to our phones or TV for a distraction but this doesn’t help us de-stress. Exercise presents a much healthier and real-world alternative that actually increases cortisol levels, thus helping you to lower stress and anxiety. 
 
An opportunity to socialise 
 
Another benefit of many forms of sport and exercise is that it gives you a low-pressure way of socialising and spending time with other people. 
 
If isolation is something you have struggled with then this will be a big bonus. Connection and community are vital for good mental health. Not only will you be able to interact with other people but it’s actually a pretty easy way of socialising and meeting people for the first time. 
 
Because you’re focused on the sport or physical activity you don’t have to worry about having too much to say, you just enjoy playing a game with other people. 
Woman sleeping
It may be that what you need is something else to focus on or just better sleep. Exercise and physical activity can provide this. 

What physical activity can I do? 

So, what are your options? 
 
Not all sport is going to be for everyone and it may be that the socialising and community is less important than simply an opportunity to unwind or let off steam. 
 
Here’s a few things for different kinds of people. 

Swimming 

We talked about the benefits of swimming in our previous post, so be sure to check that out if you haven’t already. 
 
To recap, it poses a number of aerobic benefits as well as exercising the whole body. The humid air and deep rhythmic breathing required can also be good for you. For some, simply getting in the pool and being alone in the water may be a real release. 

Team Sports 

For some, joining a casual football match or even a local amateur sports club will provide them with the community and competition they need. 
 
Sports like this often exercise your body more than you realise as you are more focused on the game than specific exercises so end up working your body harder. 
 
It’s a great way to unwind and release those feel-good hormones both from the social aspect and the workout you get from it. 

Combat Sports 

Another option you may not have considered is combat sports like boxing or a martial art. Often something that people initially dismiss, it can become an unlikely favourite due to its regimented fitness programs and highly focused drills. 
 
It can be a great way of releasing pent up aggression, anger and stress without necessarily being aggressive. You may also come away feeling empowered, stronger and able to overcome things that are holding you down. 
Happy playing tennis
Sports like tennis are a great way to socialise. 

We know it works 

You don’t have to go all in from doing nothing. NHS guidance recommends you take it slow to start and gradually build up to doing 150 minutes of exercise a week or more. 
 
Some GP’s can even prescribe exercise as a form of treatment for depression and other conditions. They can help you decide what activity might be suitable and potentially even get you on a programme for free or at a reduced cost if it would help. 
 
At the end of the day, we know exercise can be of great benefit to most people tackling mental ill-health. 
 
If you want to make a change in your life, we’d love to help. Our swim school might be for you or we can point you in the right direction of where you can get involved in physical activity. 
 
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