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Exercise for happiness

Hold the front page - exercise is good for you!

It’s hardly an earth-shattering revelation that physical activity has myriad health benefits, but it’s worth emphasising just how significant and wide-ranging those benefits can be. In fact, there’s a cliché that says if you could bottle exercise it would be the fastest selling medicine ever created.

Regular physical activity reduces the risk of all-cause mortality by 30%, cardiovascular disease by 35%, type 2 diabetes by 40%, hip fractures by 68% and dementia by 30%. It can also significantly reduce the risk of a number of cancers. But the benefits of exercise are by no means limited to physical health. Over the last 50 years, a vast body of research has shown conclusively that an increase in physical activity leads to improved mental health.

The mood boost

Extensive studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. A recent study done by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that walking for an hour or running for 15 minutes every day reduces the risk of major depression by 26%. In addition to relieving depression symptoms, research also shows that maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent you from relapsing.

Exercise is a powerful tool against both depression and anxiety for several reasons. It promotes numerous changes in the brain, including neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm. Physical activity helps to relax the muscles and relieve tension in the body. It also releases feel-good endorphins, natural endogenous cannabinoids and other natural brain chemicals that can enhance your sense of well-being.

Furthermore, exercise can also serve as a distraction, taking your mind off worries so you can get away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression and anxiety

Universal benefits

But simply analysing the psychological benefits of exercise in terms of depression and anxiety means overlooking the huge boosts that physical activity can have on everybody’s state of mind. You don’t need to be suffering from a mental health condition to reap the rewards.

In fact, people who exercise regularly tend to do so because it gives them an enormous sense of wellbeing. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline. The list is almost endless.

One study asked people to rate their mood immediately after periods of physical activity (e.g. going for a walk or doing housework), and periods of inactivity (e.g. reading a book or watching television). Researchers found that the participants felt more content, more awake and calmer after being physically active compared to after periods of inactivity.

Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance. Physical activity has been shown to positively influence our self-esteem and self-worth. This relationship has been found in children, adolescents, young adults, adults and older people, and among both males and females.

In short, everyone can enjoy a boost to their mood from exercise. And that really does mean everyone, regardless of their physical fitness or abilities.

Exercise for all

According to a government report in 2022, around 34% of men and 42% of women are not active enough for good health. Part of the problem here may be that many people lack the confidence to take up exercise, or think that they can’t fit it into their everyday lives. The NHS advises that we should all do at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity every week, spread evenly over at least four or five days a week.

But the truth is that physical activity comes in many forms. We don’t all need to rush out and invest in lycra and a carbon fibre bike, or start running marathons, to get the exercise we need. Certainly running, lifting weights, playing basketball and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can physical activity such as gardening, washing your car, walking around the block or engaging in other less intense activities.

In essence, every bit of movement counts – and any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving can help improve your mood.

The key message, then, is twofold: That everyone can do exercise, and that everyone should do exercise. A lack of physical fitness is no barrier to starting up, and just because you may not have a mental health condition doesn’t mean that physical activity won’t make you feel better and boost your mood. Exercise is a simple, low-cost, universal activity that will both extend your life, but also make it more enjoyable.

Read about our BuddyBoost Active challenges here.


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