Exercise and mental health: what are the benefits, and how can we be more mindful?

How do you feel after a workout?

Doing physical activity helps us connect with our body—and the more we’re connected with our body, the more likely we’ll look after them. Studies show that being more active can not only improve how we relate to ourselves, but also lower stress levels and even reduce the risk of depression.

When we experience high-energy emotions like fear, stress, anxiety or excitement—to name just a few—our body releases adrenaline and cortisol. Adrenaline prepares us physically when we perceive a threat by triggering the fight-or-flight response, while cortisol is produced in reaction to stress and can even suppress our immune system.

However, we don’t face the same threats in modern life that humans once did, resulting in excess adrenaline that can lead to fatigue and muscle tension. Cortisol can also suppress our immune system, so high levels of it over a period of time can make us more susceptible to illness. Doing high-energy workouts help burn off excess amounts of these hormones, reducing the negative impact this has on our body.

On the other hand, when we experience low-energy emotions such as sadness or depression, we often feel heavy or numb and can find ourselves ruminating, getting stuck in unhelpful patterns of thinking. Exercising can bring us out of this ‘thinking mode’ and release endorphins—a natural high created by our body.

Mindful, purposeful movement while exercising allows us to take time out from autopilot and bring us back to the present moment. This in turn aids our motivation and productivity. So, next time you exercise, try being aware of your breathing or where your feet land—see how it makes you feel.

Schedule in some exercise in the coming week—this could be as simple as taking a brisk walk around the park at lunchtime. Pay attention to how you feel before and after. You might find it helpful to record this in some way, like in a journal, or in our app when you log your mood. Do this a few times, start looking back at what you recorded, and you might be surprised by what you feel. We rarely regret a workout, but often regret not doing one.

With gyms still closed, staying active and keeping up our motivation can be a real challenge. We’ve added some new home workouts from Siri Price Fitness to our in-app resources. If you prefer more relaxed forms of exercise, there are plenty of yoga classes in our app, too—head over to the Resources section of our app and select Look after your body. Why not do just that and take the opportunity to try something new this week?