We all know the physical benefits that come with being active: from a healthy heart and improved circulation to keeping in shape. But what about the effects on our mental wellbeing? Can exercise really help develop resilience, improve low moods and boost self-esteem?

Yes, it can, advises Dr Mark Winwood, Director of Psychological Services.

“When you’re active, your brain releases dopamine and serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ chemicals, which are known to improve your mood”. In other words, you get a natural high. It also reduces harmful changes in the brain caused by stress and can help us to see possibilities, instead of feeling defeated.

“However, if you’re feeling low, or struggling with anxiety and depression, it’s easy to get caught in a harmful cycle of not wanting to do much; you may not feel you’re worth the effort so you do less of the things that could potentially help you. You may think ‘I’m no good at it’, or ‘I can’t even get up and walk to the shops’ and then use these negative thoughts to punish yourself even more.”

“The only way to break that cycle is to increase your activity, start small and build it into your day. Something as simple as going for a ten minute walk at first will help. Then set yourself targets to increase your activity, making it part of your lifestyle. The only bad exercise is the exercise you don’t do.”

To stay healthy, adults aged 19-64 should try to be active daily and should do at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week. This can range from cycling or brisk walking, to dancing, swimming or gardening.

In short, the more exercise you do, the more likely you are to feel better prepared to deal with life’s challenges.

Being more physically active can help you:

  1. Feel less depressed or anxious
  2. Concentrate better
  3. Sleep better
  4. Feel good about yourself, improving your self-worth and confidence
  5. Replace addictive behaviours that are bad for your physical health, such as smoking and drinking alcohol.

Make time, set goals and be realistic

If you’re put off the idea of exercise because you think you’d look silly, don’t like getting sweaty, think you won’t be able to do it, or any other reason, the good news is that being physically active doesn’t have to be about ‘feeling the burn’. It can be about increasing your activity to suit your lifestyle, bit by bit, every day, as Dave Cross, fitness expert, explains:

“Exercise needs to be fun and enjoyable enough so you’re motivated yet can still challenge yourself to improve. Group exercise, or even something you do with a friend, is especially good for this because it increases your chances of sticking to your plans and achieving your goals.

“Set yourself a SMART goal (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound). Your overall goal could be wanting to do a 10 mile walk or take part in a running race, in which case you’d then break that down into smaller goals and build it up, such as starting with 5 minute walk or run, then 10, 20, 30 minutes until you reach your goal. Having these smaller achievements along the way will help you stick at it to reach your ultimate goal.”

No time? No problem!

“If you’ve got a busy lifestyle, use whatever time you have available,” says Dave. “Being active should be part of your lifestyle; if you have a lunch break, go for a walk, walk your kids to school instead of driving, choose the stairs instead of the lift, choose a parking space that’s further away from where you need to be – it all adds up.”

With the help of Dr Mark Winwood and Dave, we’ve put together 10 top tips to help you stay happy when you’re active:

  1. Group exercise is a great way to get started and stay motivated. It’s also great for morale and building close connections with others, making you feel happy and making exercise an integral part of the socialising.
  2. Any exercise is better than none, but make it a habit! Shorter bursts of activity a few times a week are better than doing it all in one go, for example, five lots of 15 minute activities makes it more of a habit than one burst of an hour.
  3. You could start with a stroll, building up activity to be regular and more vigorous.
  4. You don’t have to get out of breath; as a rough guide, you should still be able to hold a conversation, but not sing a line of a song!
  5. If you’re tired, exercise can give you energy – it’s possible to push through the tiredness barrier if you find activities that aren’t too physically or mentally demanding for you. So don’t let tiredness be your excuse to not bother!
  6. There’s no ‘best’ time of the day to be active; it’s whatever fits into your lifestyle, but try not to do too much before bedtime, since being hot affects sleep, as do some of the hormones produced, such as adrenaline and faster heart rate you may experience after exercise. This doesn’t include sex – when we have sex we produce Oxytocin, another feel good chemical, which can help relax us and aid our sleep.
  7. Fitness trackers can help you stay motivated and achieve your goals, but use them wisely. If you become dissatisfied because your tracker tells you that your sleep was too light or you haven’t done as many steps as you’d hoped, try not to let it ruin your day.
  8. Try exercising in daylight, especially in winter. Daylight, whether it’s sunny or not, helps give you the extra energy you need to be active and can also boost your vitamin D intake.
  9. Don’t beat yourself up! If you don’t make it out for a walk, or to the gym, don’t worry about it. Tomorrow’s a new day to start afresh.
  10. Don’t worry if you don’t have any equipment or special sports-wear. Being physically active can be as simple as following a 20 minute yoga video on Youtube at home and there are exercises you can do that include using tins of food as weights and using your stairs to help you stretch.

If you’re thinking about becoming more active, you’ll find plenty of information and inspiration in our exercise and fitness centre, as well as on our Headstrong page, where you’ll find breath work and mindful movement videos from Richie Norton. Try 30 minutes of brisk walking, five times a week for four weeks and see the impact it has – from improving your blood flow, to strengthening your muscles, as well as gaining a new perspective to help you become more resilient.