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Dr. Aysha Butt is the Medical Director of FROM MARS, and is a GP Partner at Woodcote NHS Medical Practice.

GMC NUMBER: 6164178

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How does exercise help mental health?

Everyone deserves to live with good mental health. However, us men usually aren’t as good at taking care of our mental wellbeing as we should be. We don’t talk about mental health problems enough and too few of us seek help for them. We need to change that.

We’re doing our bit to help change things. As part of our contribution to Movember, we’re talking more openly about men’s mental health. Here, we’ll explain how you can take care of and improve your mental health with exercise.

What is mental health?

Physical health is the health of your body, and mental health is the health of your mind.

If you’re physically healthy, you can meet the physical challenges life throws at you, and your body doesn’t hold you back from living the life you want. The same is true for mental health. Good mental health means you have positive thoughts and emotions most of the time. This means you can form and develop relationships, be productive at work, and cope with stress. It also means you can live up to the demands and obligations of your life and ultimately take pleasure from it. If you have poor mental health, you can struggle with all of these things, and it can take a serious toll on your life.

How does exercise help mental health?

There are lots of ways you can improve your mental health, from getting therapy to taking medication. However, research has shown that mental health and exercise are related.

Exercise isn’t just beneficial for your physical health, it can improve your mental wellbeing too. Science has shown that regular exercise can help reduce anxiety and depression, and it may be as effective as antidepressant medications for mild to moderate mental health disorders (but with fewer side effects!). It’s thought that exercise helps with mental health by:

How does exercise help anxiety?

Exercise can reduce anxiety and help improve your mental health in a range of ways. It can cause your brain to release chemicals that improve your mood, like endorphins and serotonin. Exercise can ease stress, help you sleep better, increase your energy levels, get you socialising, and give you a goal to work towards as well as improving your self-esteem.

What sort of exercise is best for mental health?

So, what activities are good for mental health? Most of the research on exercise and mental health focusses on aerobic exercise. This is an exercise that gets you breathing harder and faster and gets your heart rate up. Examples include running, cycling, hiking, playing football, boxing, and martial arts.

The truth is, there’s no single best exercise to improve your mental health. As long as it gets your blood pumping, it should help. The best exercise is really one that you enjoy and that you’ll stick with. If you find exercise fun, you’ll keep exercising. If it’s a chore, you won’t. So, if five-a-side football is your thing, play five-a-side football. If you love to run, then run. If you can’t get enough of Morris dancing, then Morris dance away.

How much exercise should you do?

In the UK, the government recommends you do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week in bouts of at least 10 minutes.

You can break this down however you’d like, but 30 minutes of exercise five days a week is a good target to aim for. If you’ve not exercised for some time, this should be a goal to build up to not something to try and attempt right away.

How to get started

It can be hard to start exercising, particularly if your mental health has taken a hit and you’ve not exercised for some time. Trust us, we know. But this advice may help you begin and help ease you into a lasting exercise routine:

Mental health is something we all need to take seriously, and exercise can be a great help (it does a lot for your physical health too). We hope this will inspire you, but if you need some more food for thought, the NHS has a great guide on how you can get more exercise for free

Although the mental health benefits of exercise can be substantial, if you’re suffering from mental health problems, exercise alone may not be enough. You should talk to your doctor about other treatments. You can also find support online with Movember.