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The Benefits of Exercise for Good Mental Health

The government’s Sporting Future strategy puts mental wellbeing at its heart, and to date Sport England has invested more than £8 million of exchequer and National Lottery funding in projects related to mental health.

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13th July 2021

Participation in regular physical activity can increase our self-esteem and can reduce stress and anxiety. Physical activity causes a release of cortisol in the body which assists in managing its stress response and research shows a link between exercise and positive self-esteem. 

As well as driving a self-esteem boost in the short term by enhancing our mood and making us feel more positive, in the medium term, exercising regularly contributes to making us view our physical self in a more positive light. 

In today’s ever changing world, these positive benefits are hugely beneficial. However, the contribution of exercise to good mental health does not end there. 

Improved sleep 

Exercising improves sleep for many people. Moderate-to-vigorous exercise can increase sleep quality for adults by reducing sleep onset – in other words, the time it takes to fall asleep. Additionally, physical activity can help alleviate daytime sleepiness and, for some people, reduce the need for sleep medications.

A good night's sleep, improved by exercise, helps to improve attention and concentration, facilitates learning and making memories, helps you maintain a healthy weight, keeps your heart healthy, and keeps the immune system strong.  

Stress Relief

Exercise is one of the most recommended coping techniques of managing stress by medical practitioners. 

Cardio exercise is especially effective when it comes to stress relief. Whether you do a run in the park or a challenging weights session, a physical workout of any kind bumps up the production of endorphins. These are the brain’s feelgood neurotransmitters. 

In fact, anything that gets your body moving recharges you and reduces levels of the body's stress hormones, which are known to deplete your energy. Everything counts, from a brisk walk, to dancing, or swimming, or just chasing around in the park with the children. 

Better Endurance

When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, exercise can help to build resilience and help you to feel like you are coping, instead of resorting to unhealthy coping strategies or behaviours such as over-eating or drinking. 

The endorphins released during and after exercise reward individuals with a natural high and training can build up mental endurance just in the same way that it can build up physical endurance. During exercise you learn to pick up good habits, and by setting yourself targets outside of your comfort zone, you draw on all of your internal motivators and just ‘slug it out’ with yourself.

Exercise helps you to see obstacles in front of you and mentally push on regardless. Good habits, consistency and disciplined action will help you build the mental fortitude you need for life. 

Improvement in mood

Exercise, even a short burst of 10 minutes or so, increases our mental alertness, energy levels and contributes to a more positive mood. This is thanks to the release of serotonin, the chemical this enables our brain to regulate our mood as well as sleep and appetite. 

Being outdoors can enhance this massively too, daylight naturally increases the levels of serotonin all the more, hence the link to seasonal affective disorder and exercise’s ability to ward it off. 

Exercising outside, whether walking, running or using outdoor gym equipment can lower blood pressure and heart rate, making exercise outdoors even feel less strenuous. 

Reduced depression and anxiety

A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving symptoms of depression, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent a relapse. 

There are several reasons why exercise carries these benefits, most importantly it promotes brain changes, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of wellbeing and calm. The release of endorphins too, energises us and make us feel good. 

The required mental focus and concentration on exercise allows us to breathe deeply and focus only on the moment. It is a break from negative thought patterns that can feed depression. 

The social benefits of exercise also positively contribute to alleviating depression. Humans are born into social groups and live their entire lives as a part of society. As psychologist, Susan Pinker, explains: - “Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters which release oxytocin, increase your level of trust, lower your cortisol levels and ultimately relieve your mental stress.”


If you would like to explore different exercises you can do to get your body moving you can read our Upper Body Workout Plan, our Core Strengthening Workout Plan and our Outdoor Gym Workout for Legs & Lungs

If you would like to try some exercise outdoors for free, this summer, you can use our handy outdoor gym locator to find the nearest Fresh Air Fitness outdoor park gym to you.



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