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Dossier: Strong mind

Mental health benefits of exercise

Sport is important for a strong and healthy body, but our mental health also benefits from regular exercise. A sports psychologist explains how physical activity benefits our mental health, too.

Text: Michelle de Oliveira; photo: Unsplash

Exercise is one of the best medicines. It helps if you’re feeling low, frustrated, angry, anxious or sad. And if you’re feeling good, it can make you feel even better! Many people turn to exercise when they want to do something good for themselves. And it works on several levels. Sport not only makes you physically fitter, it also has a direct impact on your mental health. If you’re a bit of a couch potato, here are seven reasons to start exercising if you haven’t already.

Physical activity helps balance your hormones. “Exercise encourages the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine,” explains sport psychologist and coach Alain Meyer. “They help you feel less tired and boost your mood.” At the same time, exercise reduces the stress hormones adrenalin and cortisol. This means we’re no longer in constant fight or flight mode – and can relax. Achieving this state often improves sleep, which can have a direct impact on our well-being.

Sport allows us to take a mental break from our daily lives. “Doing sport is like pressing a reset button in your mind”, says Meyer. “If you sit stressed in front of a computer all day, you can use your body as a tool to slow or stop the thoughts racing through your head for a moment.” And it’s not a case of the tougher, the better: Meyer explains that that is a myth. “If you only focus on performance while exercising, you may put yourself under unnecessary pressure and get frustrated when you can’t reach goals that you set too high for yourself.”

You can improve your mindfulness by making time for exercise and spending some time outdoors in nature. Taking a walk in the woods allows you to feel the ground under your feet, watch the lights play in the leaves and listen to the sounds all around you. And you can breathe freely again. “Mindfulness is proven to have a positive impact on mental health”, says Meyer. And, similar to meditation, it allows you to observe your own thoughts and think about what is – often unconsciously – going through your mind at a particular moment.

If you exercise regularly, you’ll notice a difference: “You feel fitter, healthier, more flexible and might even lose a few pounds,” says Meyer. This improves your general well-being, makes you happier and more confident. But you need to be patient. “Change doesn’t happen overnight,” says Meyer. “But if you keep at it and exercise regularly, you won’t be disappointed.”

When you exercise, it is not only your physical appearance that changes, but also your brain. The flow of blood improves, which increases the oxygen supply. This can help improve concentration and make it easier to learn new things. What’s more, learning a new sport also trains the brain, activating previously neglected areas and forming new synapses. In other words, exercise trains not only the body, but also the brain.

“Many people think it’s no pain, no gain and that you have to be bathed in sweat after exercising to see any benefits”, says Meyer. “But that’s not true at all. It’s best to push yourself to the point that you’re already looking forward to exercising again when you’re taking a shower.” You don’t have to run a marathon or cycle as if you were in the Tour de France or work out at the gym until you’re ready to drop. Dancing, doing yoga, taking a long walk with the dog or trying out a new climbing route is just as good for you as wearing yourself out at fitness boxing. It is important that you have fun and enjoy it: “Enjoying what you do has a positive impact on your well-being”, says Meyer.

Once you’ve found a sport you enjoy, it’s a good idea to incorporate it into your daily routine and do it for half an hour or more every day. “I make appointments in my agenda and write: ‘Meeting with my no.1 customer’,” explains Meyer. Make a date with yourself, do something good for yourself. It might just be on your commute home after work − walk or cycle instead of taking the bus and give yourself the opportunity to leave the working world behind. Take the stairs instead of the lift or do some squats while you’re brushing your teeth. That counts as exercise, too. Meyer says “You’re allowed to be proud of yourself. Being kind to yourself and celebrating your successes – even small ones – does you good, motivates you to keep going and fires up your neurotransmitters even more.”