We know movement is essential for physical health, but what about incorporating moving for mental health?  This is the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week in May 2024.

The Big Problem

As a society, we have a big problem concerning the mental health of our citizens. And it’s a problem that can be utterly overwhelming for those directly affected.

Research from Mental Health UK, cited in their Burnout Report published January 2024, shows that nine out of ten adults experienced high or extreme stress levels last year. And this is a figure that cuts across almost all generations. Furthermore, 20% of workers needed to take time off work due to poor mental health caused by pressure or stress.

Apart from the enormous toll on the individuals concerned, there are also huge implications for the economic health of individual organisations. The effects of poor mental health then ripple out with consequences for the economy in general. The report shows that 1 in 4 adults (24%) feel unable to manage their stress and pressure levels.

At the same time, public health services are stretched beyond capacity in all directions.

Therefore, helping ourselves where possible is going to be not only beneficial but also significantly self-empowering and confidence-boosting.

One simple step towards a solution

Numerous strategies and treatments are available to help our mental health. However, one simple yet powerful approach stands out: physical exercise. ‘Moving for mental health’ summarises the profound impact that exercise can have on our emotional wellbeing.

Exercise isn’t just about sculpting the body or improving physical health; it’s also a potent tool to help improve mental health. When we engage in physical activity, whether a brisk walk, a yoga session, or a high-intensity workout, our bodies release endorphins, often called the “feel-good” hormones. These chemicals interact with receptors in the brain, reducing our perception of pain and triggering positive feelings.

Regular exercise can act as a natural antidepressant. Studies have shown that consistent physical activity can be as effective as medication or therapy in alleviating symptoms of depression. By incorporating exercise into our routine, we not only boost our mood in the short term but can also create a buffer against future episodes of anxiety and depression.

The Benefits of Moving For Mental Health

The benefits of moving for mental health extend beyond mood regulation. When we’re under stress, our bodies enter a state of heightened arousal, releasing cortisol, the primary stress hormone. Prolonged exposure to high levels of cortisol can have detrimental effects on both our physical and mental health. However, gentle physical activity, such as yoga, tai chi, or stretches, can help to counteract this by reducing cortisol levels. This, in turn, promotes relaxation and improves sleep quality—all of which are essential for maintaining good mental health.

Exercise can also offer a much-needed break from the constant stream of thoughts and worries that often plague our minds. When focused on the physical task, whether lifting weights or practising mindfulness during a run, we give our brains a chance to rest and recharge. This mental break can provide much-needed relief from the pressures of everyday life, allowing us to return to our tasks with renewed clarity and perspective.

Furthermore, exercise can boost self-esteem and confidence, which are fundamental for good mental health. A sense of accomplishment and pride develops as we achieve our fitness goals and witness our strength, endurance, and overall health improvements. These positive feelings can extend beyond the gym or the yoga mat and empower us to tackle other challenges with confidence and resilience.

Small Changes Can Be Significant

The beauty of moving for mental health lies in its accessibility. It doesn’t require fancy equipment or expensive gym memberships. All it demands is a willingness to move our bodies in whatever way feels right for us.

Incorporating regular physical activity into our lives doesn’t have to be complicated or time-consuming. Even small changes, such as taking the stairs instead of the lift or going for a short walk during lunch break, can make a significant difference in how we feel. The key is to find activities that we enjoy and that fit into our lifestyle. Whether dancing, swimming, cycling, or practising tai chi in the garden, every moment of movement contributes to our overall wellbeing.

You could consider a home workout using simple equipment readily available there. For example, you could do heel lifts while holding onto a kitchen surface, push-ups against a wall or the back of a sofa, a few repetitions of chair stands to strengthen the quads or some wall Pilates. There are chair workouts on YouTube for those with physical restrictions or who find standing exercises too challenging.

Ten minutes a day can be all it takes to make those significant changes over time. Start slowly and build up gradually. Set achievable goals and be kind to yourself rather than setting unrealistic goals. This process is for your wellbeing and is not a race, so enjoy the journey.

Conclusion: Moving for Mental Health

In conclusion, ‘moving for mental health’ summarises the transformative power of exercise in promoting emotional wellbeing. By making physical activity a priority in our lives, we can reap a multitude of benefits, from reducing stress and anxiety to boosting mood and self-esteem. So, let’s lace up our trainers, roll out our yoga mats, get out into nature, and rediscover the joy of movement to support our mind, body, and spirit.

Disclaimer: Always consult with a health professional before starting a new exercise regime or if you have any concerns, injuries or physical limitations.

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