Exercise and mental health

Explore the positive link between exercise and mental health and discover expert tips to help you incorporate more activity into your daily routine.
15 Aug, 2023 • 5.5 minutes to read
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In a world filled with challenges to our physical and emotional wellbeing, exercise is a powerful tool for promoting mental health. By reducing stress, alleviating anxiety, boosting mood, and promoting a sense of wellbeing, exercise acts as a catalyst for positive change that benefits both the mind and body.

Starting and maintaining a regular exercise routine isn’t always easy. We often encounter barriers that hinder our motivation and ability to engage in physical activity, whether that’s a lack of time, feeling unmotivated, or even physical limitations which hamper our efforts.

In this article, we explore the positive link between exercise and mental health and share tips to help you add activity into your day.

The mental health benefits of physical activity

Studies have shown that exercise promotes the growth of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates the growth of new connections and neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for learning, memory – and potentially impacting underlying depression.

Ongoing research consistently reveals the benefits of exercise on mental health, regardless of age. Even small amounts of physical activity have been shown to yield positive effects on mental wellbeing.1 When we exercise, our brain releases chemicals that reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) and increase the production of ‘feel-good’ hormones, such as endorphins.2 What’s more, studies have shown that exercise promotes the growth of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF),3 a protein that stimulates the growth of new connections and neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region crucial for learning, memory – and potentially impacting underlying depression.

Engaging in regular exercise can lead to improved sleep quality, enhanced mindset and overall mood, reduced stress and anxiety levels, increased energy levels, boosted self-esteem and confidence, improved motivation and focus, and the fostering of social connections.

Edward Cole, Head of Healthcare Development for mental health at Bupa UK Insurance, commented: “Incorporating regular exercise into our routine can improve our quality of life and provide valuable support toward wellbeing. Today’s world is fast-paced and demanding but our lifestyles are often very sedentary. With stress and mental health issues increasingly prevalent, prioritising physical activity has never been more important. Regular exercise can help effectively manage stress, boost mood, and enhance overall emotional health.”

Recognising barriers and overcoming challenges

Common barriers that may prevent us from engaging in regular physical activity might include limited time, inconvenience, tiredness, lack of motivation, finding exercise boring, fear of injury, and lack of support or companionship. Other obstacles may include cost or lack of access to facilities, weather conditions, age, illness, pregnancy, lack of mobility and feelings of self-consciousness.

"Small steps can lead to big changes. Start by setting achievable goals and gradually increase your activity level over time.”

– Edward Cole

The COVID-19 pandemic introduced new challenges, such as reduced commuting and a more sedentary lifestyle due to remote work arrangements. Edward observes, "COVID-19 prompted a widespread shift to remote work and increased time spent at home, which has significantly contributed to a more sedentary lifestyle for many people. The lack of daily commuting, reduced physical activities and prolonged sitting have become common challenges. By actively addressing these and finding creative solutions to stay active while working from home, we can prioritise our wellbeing and counteract the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle.”

Edward adds, "Small steps can lead to big changes. Start by setting achievable goals and gradually increase your activity level over time. Try incorporating short bursts of exercise throughout your day or finding activities that can be done at home. Seek support from friends, family, or online communities to stay motivated and accountable. Remember, it's not about perfection but about finding what works for you and looking at ways you can add more activity into your day."

Finding the best approach for you

When it comes to exercise and physical activity, it's important to acknowledge that everyone has unique circumstances and abilities.

Edward says, "We must recognise that exercise and physical activity look different for everyone. It's about finding what works for you and embracing it. A gentle walk, a dance class, a modified workout, or even sitting exercises - every form of movement contributes to physical and mental wellbeing."

“A healthcare professional or physical therapist can give you personalised recommendations and guidance based on your specific mobility challenges and health condition” adds Edward. “They can provide exercises tailored to your abilities and ensure your safety while being physically active.”

Conditions such as acute depression may limit the possibility of engaging in physical activity. In such cases, seeking appropriate support and resources is essential. Edward highlights, "During times of acute depression, prioritise self-care and seek professional guidance. Consulting a mental health professional or a trusted medical professional can provide valuable insights and support to help you navigate through these challenges."

Tips for incorporating exercise into your daily routine

Incorporating physical activity into your daily routine doesn't have to be complicated or time-consuming. It’s easy to think that joining a gym or investing in expensive equipment is necessary, but the truth is that exercise can be accessible and enjoyable with simple strategies.

By implementing these tips, you can start to make exercise a part of your day:

  1. Make it a habit: Set aside dedicated time each day for physical activity. It can be 10 minutes or an hour, depending on your schedule, but consistency is key.
  2. Choose activities you enjoy: Find exercises that you genuinely enjoy doing. It could be dancing, hiking, cycling, yoga, or even taking a brisk walk. When you engage in activities that you find fun and fulfilling, you're more likely to stick with them in the long run.
  3. Be creative with your environment: If you don't have access to a gym or specific exercise equipment, get creative with your surroundings. You can do bodyweight exercises at home, use household items as makeshift weights, or take advantage of outdoor spaces like parks or trails for walking or jogging.
  4. Break it up: If finding a continuous block of time for exercise is challenging, break it up into smaller sessions throughout the day. For example, you can do three 10-minute sessions of brisk walking or other exercises to accumulate your recommended daily activity.
  5. Stay motivated: Set realistic goals and track your progress to stay motivated. Consider using a fitness tracker or smartphone app to monitor your steps, distance, or workout time. You can also find a workout buddy or join virtual fitness communities to stay accountable and inspired.
  6. Modify activity to suit your abilities: For individuals with limited mobility, it's important to focus on exercises that can be performed while sitting or lying down. For example, you may be able to engage in seated exercises that target different muscle groups. These can include leg lifts, arm curls, shoulder rolls, and seated marches. Consult with a healthcare professional or physical therapist for personalised exercises that suit your specific needs and abilities.

Remember, the most important thing is to find an approach that works for you and fits into your lifestyle.

How much exercise is enough?

Determining the appropriate amount of exercise can vary depending on individual circumstances and capabilities. The World Health Organisation (WHO) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) provide general guidelines for adults aged 18-65 years. They recommend engaging in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per week or 75 minutes of high-intensity aerobic physical activity to maintain health and improve aerobic fitness levels.4

But, of course, these recommendations may not be feasible or suitable for everyone. Each person has unique abilities, health conditions and limitations that should be taken into consideration. As Edward comments, “Take time to listen to your body and consult with a medical professional to determine the appropriate level and type of exercise for your individual needs.”

While exercise has numerous benefits, excessive or compulsive exercise can have negative consequences. Take care to avoid pushing yourself beyond healthy limits or over-exercising. Try to find a balanced approach to exercise that prioritises enjoyment, rest, and recovery.

Sources expand_more
  1. The association between physical activity and mental health during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic: a systematic review. 2022. BMC Public Health. Last accessed February 2024.
  2. Exercising to Relax - Harvard Health Publishing - Harvard Health. Last accessed February 2024.
  3. Acute effect of moderate and high-intensity interval exercises on asprosin and BDNF levels in inactive normal weight and obese individuals. 2023. Scientific Reports (nature.com). Last accessed February 2024.
  4. Be health, be mobile – Physical Activity. World Health Organisation. Last accessed February 2024. 

This information was published by Bupa Global's Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals and deemed accurate on the date of review.

We review our content at least every three years to ensure it is fresh and relevant.

The information contained on this page and in any third-party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment.