By Jenni Hart

When most people resolve to do more exercise and get fit, they usually have the physical health benefits in mind. Perhaps they want to reduce their blood pressure, lose weight or simply tone up their bodies ready for summer. But research continues to indicate that there are in fact a number of benefits for mental health that are linked to regular exercise too – so much so that healthcare professionals often recommend exercise (alongside medication) as a holistic treatment for depression and anxiety. Here are just a few of the ways that exercise can keep you happy as well as healthy.

Happy hormones
Livestrong suggests that even light to moderate exercise has an effect on chemicals and endorphins that are released in the brain and responsible for mood. Dopamine and serotonin are two of these so called ‘happy hormones’ and the increased production and release of these throughout the body is thought to induce feelings of positivity, motivation, calmness and eurphoria. Exercise is also thought to stimulate areas of the brain responsible for the development and regrowth of new cells.

Beat Addiction
Addiction and mental illness are closely linked and often work in a vicious cycle with one another. Sometimes people turn to addictive substances such as drugs and alcohol because they are suffering from mental illness, other times their addiction and lifestyle can cause them to develop depression, anxiety or stress. Exercise is a great tool in beating addiction and consequently mental health issues because it acts as a distraction. Addiction is a habitual problem but exercise helps break the habit both literally and physically – an article in the Huffington Post states that addictive substances can disrupt circadian rhythms and exercise can help reset these. Addiction happens when the addict experiences a high hit of pleasure after receiving their substance. This is caused by excess levels of dopamine flooding though the body. Because exercise naturally increases the production of dopamine, they will find that they can experience highs in a healthier way. For these reasons many drug rehabilitation centers factor regular exercise into their recovery programs.

Getting outdoors
Pyschcentral identify the fact that in modern day society the majority of the population spend most of their time indoors – either for school, work or by being at home and this disconnection from nature can affect mental health. Getting outdoors, even for a short time, can promote feelings of wellbeing and calmness and exposure to the sun increases our intake of Vitamin D which is known to have benefits for the mind. Exercising outdoors also opens up the possibility for more varied types of activities – surfing, hiking, mountain biking, surfing and abseiling are just a few exciting types of outdoor exercise.

Self esteem
A lot of mental health problems are linked to low confidence and poor self esteem. Exercise is a great way to boost self esteem as it involves setting yourself goals and therefore making personal achievements. If you weren’t physically fit to begin with then you will begin to notice yourself gradually building up your fitness levels – running faster, swimming further and lifting more as your strength grows. These sorts of achievements build personal pride. Aside from this you may also find that your body image improves as you begin to lose weight, build muscle and tone up. So not only will you look great but you’ll feel great too.

Exercise can be a solitary pastime but it’s far more fun to make it social. Joining a club or a team or even having a gym buddy will spur you along and give you someone to share your achievements and concerns with. Studies show that when we are part of a team we will united and part of an ‘in crowd’ which once again is good for self esteem. You are also less likely to quit and expose yourself to unpleasant feelings of failure if you have the added pressure of letting those around you down as well.

Insomnia and mental illness are also linked and can often work together in a vicious circle. Anxiety can keep you awake but lack of sleep will only cause you to feel more anxious the next day. Exercise will physically tire your body out and this should make it easier for you to unwind and fall asleep at the end of the day. This happens not only because your muscles have been working hard but because during exercise your body’s core temperature changes. When it returns to normal a few hours later this sends signals to the brain that it is time to sleep.