Sydney Hills Counselling Blog

How Regular Exercise Can Improve Your Mental Health

As a former Fitness Trainer and Weight Loss Coach, I regularly spoke to my clients about the physical benefits of developing a regular exercise routine. I also strenuously encouraged them to maintain their exercise program when they had achieved their fitness and / or weight loss goals, to maintain and further-improve them.

What was a revelation to me though, was how often my clients would report that not only did they feel physically stronger and lighter, but they also claimed that they felt more awake, more alive, more focused at work and generally happier and better within themselves, after only exercising for just a few weeks!

Exercise is considered to be significant in maintaining our mental health and fitness, and studies have proven that it is effective in reducing stress, improving mood, increasing alertness and concentration and improving our cognitive function. One intensive study followed 10,000 Harvard university students over 20 years. This study concluded that those participants who exercised, appeared to display fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. Other studies have further supported this finding and added other benefits, indicating that exercise is linked to stronger social integration and less anger, aggression and distrust. What is particularly interesting though, is that those studies that examined adults who experienced melancholy or depressed mood states (but not at levels which meet the criteria for a psychiatric disorder), reported a significant improvement in the participants’ moods when they started exercising.

When we exercise, our bodies release chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins such as Serotonin, are neurotransmitters which are the chemicals in charge of communication between our brain cells. It is believed that reduced levels of serotonin may play a role in causing (and perhaps maintaining) anxiety and depression. Whilst antidepressant drugs may increase and balance neurotransmitter levels, a number of studies have shown that exercise may also increase serotonin production in a similar manner to antidepressant medications.

When designing an exercise program for a particular client, a fitness trainer always needs to consider the frequency, intensity, time and type of exercise suitable for that client (FITT) according to their age, health status and lifestyle. Although studies have not concluded what ‘type’ and ‘dose’ of exercise is optimal for reducing anxiety and decreasing depressive symptoms, it has been observed that moderate exercise seems to be the most effective ‘dose’. The most recent physical exercise guidelines for Australian adults between the ages of 18 and 64, indicates that 30 minutes of moderate intensity physical activity most days is recommended and that if possible, regular vigorous activity for extra health benefits is optimal for us to achieve greater health and fitness benefits.

Here are some tips for improving Mental Health, managing stress and staying healthy.

  • Walk, jog (or a combination of both) three to five times each week for 30 minutes.
  • Choose forms of exercise which are fun or enjoyable. One of my all-time favourite forms of exercise is rebounding on a mini-trampoline. As well as
    having many health benefits, it’s a lot of fun.
  • Use your smartphone and a few upbeat playlists to distract yourself while exercising. Listening to podcasts and audiobooks are also another enjoyable option.
  • Find an exercise ‘buddy’ or an accountability partner. This can make it easier to stay committed to your exercise program.
  • Set daily exercise goals and aim for progress rather than perfection

Set SMART exercise goals.

Make your goals…

Specific: For example: I want to train for the Sydney Harbour 5k run on July 28 this year.

Measurable: I want to be able to run the event in under 40 minutes.

Achievable: This is achievable as I have previously run the City to Surf race and I have a reasonable level of fitness.

Realistic: Yes, I can still run, I just need to improve my time to achieve my goal.

Timely: As I can now easily run 3.2km in just under 30 minutes, I should be able to achieve this goal by July 28.

Please consult your GP before starting a new exercise program to make sure that it is safe for you to do so.

Your doctor will consider any medications you are currently taking in addition to your individual health conditions. They may also have helpful advice regarding how to start a new exercise program safely and how to stay motivated.

If you exercise regularly but still experience anxiety or depressive symptoms, please see your doctor or mental health professional. Although exercise and physical activity are great ways to ease symptoms of depression or anxiety, they aren’t a substitute for psychological interventions or medications when recommended by a doctor.

If you are experiencing anxiety and / or depression, please call Sydney Hills Counselling today on (02) 9159 6277 for a confidential chat or email us here.

Brown WJ, Bauman AE, Bull FC, Burton NW. Development of Evidence-based Physical Activity Recommendations for Adults (18-64 years). Report prepared for the Australian Government Department of Health, August 2012.
Otto, M. W., & Smits, J. A. J. (2011). Exercise for mood and anxiety: Proven strategies for overcoming depression and enhancing well-being. New York, NY, US: Oxford University Press.