10 Surprising links between exercise and mental health

Exercise and mental health


As a mum in today's pace-paced world, you are not alone in wanting to improve your mental health. And understanding the links between exercise and mental is a great starting point.

You may have tried traditional methods like therapy or medication. These can work but are pricey or have adverse side effects. But did you know that exercise may be just as effective, if not more so?

In fact, the benefits of exercise on mental health go far beyond just improving mood or reducing stress ... and not a pill or expensive therapy sess in sight!

I explore ten surprising links between exercise and mental health that you may not have heard of before to encourage you to get moving. Whether you're a regular gym-goer or can't remember the last time you did a star jump, read on to discover how exercise can benefit your mental health.

The science behind exercise and mental health

Ok, let's start with the science. It's complex, but here goes.

Basically, when we exercise, we increase blood flow to the brain, which does three things: 

  • Reduces inflammation
  • Increases neuroplasticity 
  • Releases endorphins

These three effects have some pretty impressive results for our mental health, including warding off depression, regulating mood, lifting self-esteem, improving cognitive function, and more. 

Let's dive further into them.

Regulate your mood

One of the most significant benefits of exercise on mental health is its ability to regulate mood. 

When we exercise, we release endorphins, boosting mood and reducing stress. Endorphins are the body's natural painkillers, and they can also help to reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. In addition to endorphins, exercise also increases the production of neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals are vital in regulating mood and are often targeted by medications that treat depression and anxiety.

If you find your mood dipping and diving more frequently than that rollercoaster your kids forced you on last summer, exercise could be the perfect solution to level things out. 

Lift your self-esteem

Self-esteem is the way we feel about ourselves and our abilities. It is an essential component of mental health, and low self-esteem is a common symptom of many mental health disorders. Us mums, who barely have time to find the lipstick, let alone put it on, are key sufferers of low self-esteem.

When we exercise, we set goals and work towards achieving them. And there is nothing like reaching a goal to make you feel damn good about yourself.

Additionally, exercise can improve your physical appearance, such as a more toned body, better skin, and fewer wobbly bits. Looking good and knowing it will definitely lead to increased confidence and self-esteem.

Improved cognitive function

Sometimes, as a mum, you might feel your brain has turned to mush and your memory deserted you in the birthing room. This is due to your cognitive function, which refers to the mental processes involved in learning, thinking, and remembering. 

Exercise has been shown to improve cognitive function in several ways because it increases:

  • Blood flow to the brain, which can improve cognitive function and memory
  • The production of neurotrophic factors, which are essential for the growth and survival of neurons
  • The production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that stimulates the growth of new neurons and synapses. BDNF is essential for learning and memory, and exercise has been shown to increase its production.

Think of it this way: You won't lose precious time exercising because you'll get it back by spending less time looking for your car keys every time you leave the house.

Exercise and social connections

If you are one of many mums who rarely gets out of the house and lives an existence of changing nappies and singing Bluey songs, then it is normal to experience some level of social anxiety.

We all know that social connections are essential for maintaining good mental health. Just think how good you feel after a phone call or coffee catch-up with a friend. Or even laughing with a few other mums at school pick-up. 

But if you need more human interaction, exercise can help you build social connections by providing opportunities to meet new people and engage in group activities with like-minded souls. This will increase self-confidence and reduce social anxiety, making it easier to interact with others.

Exercise can ward off depression

Depression is a common mental health disorder affecting millions, many of whom are mums. It is characterised by sadness, hopelessness, and a lack of motivation.

Research has found that exercise can reduce symptoms of depression by a whopping 40%. 

Although managing depression as a mum needs to be treated in several ways, carving out time for a small amount of exercise a few times a week will give your mental health a much-needed boost. 

Don't just take my word for it. If you're feeling down, head to the gym, walk, or run around with your kids for a bit. Then assess how you feel after. It's likely your spirits will have lifted. 

Best of all, exercise can also prevent depression from returning, making it an ideal long-term solution. This is because exercise increases the production of neurotrophic factors, which are essential for the growth and survival of neurons. This, in turn, helps to regulate mood and prevent depression.

You will sleep better

Life feels 100 times better after a good night's sleep, right?

In my experience, doing at least 30 minutes of cardiovascular exercise will increase my sleep by about two hours per night. The sleep is better quality too. 

Let's not even bother being scientific about it: If you don't get enough sleep, you feel crap. Lack of sleep leaves us tired all day and increases anxiety and the ability to think positively.

Exercise can help to improve sleep quality by reducing stress and anxiety and increasing the production of endorphins. When we exercise, we also increase the production of adenosine, a chemical that promotes sleep. Exercise can also help regulate the body's internal clock, making it easier to fall asleep and wake up simultaneously each day.

Lower your stress levels

Stress is a common problem for us mums, and it can significantly impact our mental health. 

When we exercise, we release endorphins, boosting mood and reducing stress. Exercise can also help regulate the body's stress response by reducing the production of cortisol, a hormone often associated with stress.

A morning walk with your fav meditation app will do the job. But, if you're feeling really stressed, get pounding the treadmill at the gym or take a boxing class to let out your frustrations.

Exercise assists in addiction recovery

Never feel alone in the world if you have some form of addiction. As a mum, it can be hard to admit an addictive problem, let alone get help. Addiction is a complex mental health disorder that affects millions of people.

Exercise is a helpful tool in addiction recovery by helping to reduce cravings and withdrawal symptoms, which increases the production of endorphins. 

In addition, exercise can provide a healthy outlet for stress and anxiety, which can be addiction triggers.

Instead of pouring that wine, do some exercise. Try a short online workout if you can't leave the house because you have little ones asleep.

Reduce anxiety

Being a mum is anxiety-inducing in ways I hadn't even known existed in my pre-kid life. There is always something to worry about from baby to toddler, to teen and beyond. 

Anxiety is a common mental health disorder that is becoming more prevalent in the modern age. And, yes, you guessed it: Exercise is an effective way to reduce anxiety levels. 

When we exercise, we release endorphins, boosting mood and reducing anxiety. Exercise can also help regulate the body's stress response by reducing the production of cortisol, a hormone often associated with anxiety.

If I'm doing a mind-numbing exercise such as the treadmill, I'll stick in my headphones with a meditation for a double-whammy anxiety-busting activity.

Conclusion: How exercise impacts mental health

Exercise is a powerful tool for improving mental health. 

It can ward off depression, regulate mood, lift self-esteem, improve cognitive function, and more. Exercise can also build social connections, enhance sleep quality, reduce stress and anxiety, and assist in addiction recovery. 

To reap the mental health benefits of exercise, it is recommended that you aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. This can include activities like walking, cycling, or swimming. 

So, dig out your runners and get moving to look good and feel great too.

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Sally Love

About the author

Sally Love is a pseudo single mum author who has been writing about single motherhood, separation and divorce for 8+ years. She has been a single mother for 10+ years and has two daughters, one of whom she co-parents and the other she solo parents. Sally has experienced all aspects of single motherhood from legal, financial, parenting, dating, travel as a single parent, re-partnering and re-building a career. She is an integral part of the Beanstalk community chatting and helping single mothers across the globe, as well as sharing her expertise, experiences and genuine reviews with major national newspapers and appearing on nation-wide television shows.

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