The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

The positive mental benefits of exercise are majorly underplayed. Physical activity is often the first thing to be sidelined when things get busy or when one is feeling stressed. I personally have grown to see exercise as a form of self-care and by neglecting it I see it as neglecting myself. When you change your mind-set about exercise and realise that it is not so much about the workout as it is about spending time, with yourself it changes everything. For many people, it is one of the few times during the day that they have time to themselves where no one expects anything from them. If you are reading this, it might be a sign that it is time step outside of the hustle of everyday life that consumes us all and begin to prioritise yourself.

I hear very regularly that people struggle to find the time to engage in physical activity and I can completely resonate. However, I guarantee that if you prioritise exercise you will reap the rewards. Along with gaining some head space, serotonin is produced which immediately gives you a surge of happy energy to set you up for the day. If you train in the evening, it can give you a second wind and provide energy to enjoy the remainder of your day. The impact of serotonin on regulating mood, appetite and the sleep /wake cycle are immense. Its levels in the body are influenced by sunlight, exercise and diet. Aerobic activity such as walking, running and cycling are the most effective in increasing serotonin synthesis. The physical results are also very motivating as when your progression becomes noticeable you begin to be cognisant of the capabilities of your body and its strength. This recognition often provides incentive to continue and before you know it exercise easily becomes part of your daily routine. My intention in talking about this is to highlight that a consistent practice incorporated into daily life which is solely time for your mind and body is paramount for survival in this fast paced world that we all live in. Find an exercise that you love to do. Gyms and running aren’t for everyone but you might enjoy swimming, cycling, boxing or yoga whatever it is, find it and do it over and over until it becomes like breathing.

Exercise and fitness is something I only began to practice in my twenties. I was the one in school who dreaded PE and was always picked last for every team sport. Growing up in a community in which GAA was life, I always felt excluded from the world of sport. In my first year in college, I was feeling the pressures of looming exams and one day while out walking I thought to myself, I wonder could I run to the next lifeboat? That is how it began, I ran to one, walked to the next until I gradually built up stamina to run consistently. Now at the ripe age of 28, I couldn’t imagine my life without exercise and fitness. I engage in many forms; weight lifting, yoga, spinning but my real passion is running and yoga. Having only found exercise in my twenties I feel so strongly about promoting its positive impact because I believe that I missed out on a lot of valuable time where it would have been of benefit.

The practice of yoga is something I have only recently become acquainted with and I mention it here in case it might evoke interest in you if you haven’t tried it. It is a fast track way to teaching yourself how to listen to your body. A good teacher along with a space which allows for this connection is really important. The one I have found is ‘Sweaty Soul’ in the IFSC in Dublin. The classes are taught by Molly Mc Keever who is an amazing teacher. The space and light in this studio are very conducive to creating a safe space where the relationship between body and mind can begin to connect. Yoga practice brings an awareness to one’s breath which is something that we all mindlessly ignore the majority of time. This bodily performance is one that keeps us alive day after day. Before practicing yoga, it was an aspect of my biology that I gave little heed to. While you are in a yoga posture your mind and body have to unite in order to withstand the urge to crumble to the floor. This simple act of connecting teaches the body and mind that they are united and supportive of one and other. The practice of the glorious Savasana (resting pose usually done at the end of practice that is aimed at being awake yet completely relaxed) is proven to literally calm the nervous system and promote equilibrium in your entire body. Again, this pose enables you to sit with your body as one. Some days I really struggle with the practice of yoga because of the challenges of this connection. Often, I would much rather pound the footpaths running than have to sit with my body however, as we all know it is often what challenges us most that we need. My mother and I enjoyed a magnificent yoga retreat to Crete in June 2017 with instructor Molly Mc Keever for the purpose of increasing our ability to connect with our bodies as it is something we both feel very passionately about. This retreat provided more than one can imagine and it’s a lovely memory for us both to always treasure.  I have recently returned from Yoga Teacher Practice Training in India and I am now a qualified yoga teacher. There is another post coming all about this experience aimed at anyone interested in pursuing yoga teaching. I was both petrified and excited about embarking on this adventure but there was a burning desire to learn more about yoga and I felt it was something that I couldn’t ignore.

Exercise in its many forms, have gotten me through the hardest of days and I feel like it is always an available escapism if needed. It is like having a best friend waiting for you at the ready.  In times when I feel helpless or overcome with anxiety, I will put my runners on and just take off. The challenge for the body to run means that the mind has no choice but to quieten and the bliss this incurs is what is known as runners high. Running has helped me to cope with so much in life and can help you. It has now become part of my every day routine now and is my favorite time of day. To enable this, I like to exercise in the morning before the day starts and the sun has risen. In doing this, I can insure that life doesn’t get in the way and push exercise down the priority ranking. I used to hate getting up early and I was a real night owl however changing this routine has had one of the most positive impacts on my life. By getting up early, I can get my exercise done before going to work.  The best part, is getting to see the sunrise every morning. I always feel so privileged to get to experience this and find that it really helps set a positive mindset for the day ahead.

Of course, there are days that I enjoy spending time with friends and family and I stay up late, drink alcohol and dance the night away. On these days exercise is not a priority. This, to me is balance and it is completely about fitting exercise into your own schedule and lifestyle. If there is no time in the day, and you can’t get up any earlier than you already do think about going for a quick fifteen minute walk on your lunch break, get off a stop early on the bus and walk the rest of the way to work or do a fifteen minute home workout. There are so many accessible ways to incorporate exercise into your daily life and I guarantee it will have a positive impact on your mental health.

Humans make everything complicated with all of the many fad diets, personal trainers proclaiming different opinions when really it is much simpler than we give it credit: ‘Drink water and get sunlight you are basically a house plant with more complicated emotions’. Find something that you are passionate about and it won’t feel like a chore.

I hope I have highlighted the importance of our bodies and minds being in harmony with one and other. My intention is that I have sparked some interest on how you can start yourself wherever you are in life to begin to appreciate all that your body does for you every day. If your inner voice is one of criticism; change it. Learn to love yourself bit by bit. Your body is the one permanent home you have been given so appreciate it, treat it well and most importantly love it.



2 Replies to “The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity”

  1. Really well written Lia, has reminded me to make sure to get exercise in during a stressful time, glad I took the time to read this. Thank you so much x

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