In today’s modern society, taking care of your mental well-being is more important than ever. Recent studies suggest that people are feeling more anxious, more depressed and less confident about themselves. Additionally, the current economic climate is posing greater financial challenges and added job pressures on all of us. It is not surprising, therefore, that people are increasingly reporting that they are experiencing poor mental well-being. ‘Good’ mental well-being does not mean you are constantly happy, nor does it mean you won’t encounter negative experiences, such as, grief, failure, and sadness. Rather, good mental well-being is about being able to understand and manage the stress and pressures we encounter on a day to day basis.
Factors which encompass good mental well-being include:
- Ability to deal with the ups and downs of life
- Feel confident in yourself
- Have a sense of purpose in life
- Build and maintain positive relationships
- Feeling connected to our communities and surroundings
How do we increase our mental well-being?
Backed by scientific research, the following ‘five ways to well-being’ are considered to be essential for optimal well-being. These are; Connect (talk, listen and be there for others); keep learning (embrace new experiences and opportunities); Give (carry out acts of kindness); Take notice (Pay attention to the present, not the past or future); Be active (being active is essential for well-being). Whilst all are important, the main focus will be placed on physical activity.
Put simply, physical activity refers to any movement of your body that uses your muscles and expends energy. One of the great things about physical activity is that there are endless possibilities and there will be an activity to suit almost everyone! For example, Going for a walk or run, cycling, playing a game, gardening, dancing, anything that gets you active and moving!
Participation in regular physical activity is not only beneficial for our physical health and fitness, but, physical activity also has a huge potential to enhance our mental well-being. People who exercise regularly tend to do so because it simply gives them an enormous sense of well-being. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. It is also a powerful natural medicine for many common mental health challenges.
With regards to the scientific research conducted to date, evidence has highlighted that physical activity can significantly reduce stress, increase our self-esteem and sense of purpose, and reduce the development of severe mental disorders, such as, anxiety and depression.
Physical activity can be very effective in reducing and relieving stress. Specifically, many studies have found that individuals who are highly active tend to have lower stress rates when compared to inactive individuals. Some of the stress relieving mechanisms are identified as:
- Elevation in endorphins – When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins. Endorphins are often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals as they are produced by the body to relieve the sensations of pain and stress. When engaging in exercise, the body bumps up the production of endorphins which triggers a positive feeling in the body and mind. You may have actually already experienced this, that relaxing feeling after a good run, often referred to as “runner’s high”. This experience is usually attributed to the burst of endorphins released during exercise.
- Improves your mood- Regular exercise can increase self-confidence, improve your mood and help you relax. Exercise can also improve your sleep, which is often disrupted by elevated levels of stress. All of these exercise benefits can ease your stress levels and give you a sense of command over your body and your life.
- Reduces the negative effects of stress – Exercise can provide stress relief for your body while imitating effects of stress, such as the flight or fight response, and helping your body and its systems practice working together through those effects. This can also lead to positive effects in your body—including your cardiovascular, digestive and immune systems—by helping protect your body from harmful effects of stress.
Impact on self-esteem
Self-esteem is fundamental to our mental well-being. Self-esteem refers to how we feel about ourselves and how we perceive our self-worth. Unfortunately, the number of individuals experiencing low self-esteem is higher now than ever before which is, consequently, affecting a large proportion of the population’s mental well-being. Participating in regular physical activity can be an effective method to enhance your self-esteem through improving body image and gaining a sense of accomplishment.
- Body image – Today’s digital technology has created a society obsessed with how their body looks. Consequently, body image is now one of the most prevalent contributors in society to poor self-esteem. Participating in regular physical activity (and a balanced diet) is likely to lead to an improved body image and, therefore, sense of self-worth and self-esteem. While there is no set formula for how much exercise is needed for improved body image, following the governments Physical Activity Guidelines is a logical place to start.
- Sense of accomplishment – One of the biggest payoffs of physical activity is that, through focus and physical movement, you’re able to feel a strong sense of accomplishment. Whether that is, you beat an old time in a 5km run or simply walk for an extra 10 minutes in a day, engaging in exercise can give you a sense of pride at having attained a particular goal. The simple act of achieving a goal is related to a greater sense of self-worth and well-being.
Development of mental disorders
Engaging in physical activity can have a direct impact on your mental well-being by reducing the feelings, and development, of anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression are considered the two most prevalent mental disorders that individuals are likely to develop, with females being twice as likely to encounter these disorders than males. Exercise is a natural and effective treatment for both mild/moderate depression and anxiety. It relieves tension and stress, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. In fact, exercise is now regularly prescribed as a form of treatment (alongside medication) for these mental disorders.
Recent studies have provided evidence that physically active people tend to have lower rates of anxiety and depression than sedentary people. Additionally, studies have demonstrated that exercise can work quickly to elevate depressive symptoms in many people. Although the effects may be temporary, they demonstrate that even a 10 minute brisk walk can deliver several hours of relief, similar to taking medication for a headache or mild pain.
Participating in regular physical activity is one of the best things you can do for your health, not only physically, but, as discussed, psychologically. It does not take long for you to begin to see and feel the benefits that physical activity can have on your body and mental well-being.
If you are new to physical activity, it is essential you engage in activities that you enjoy and start slow! According to research on human behaviour, people are more likely to persist with activities that are enjoyable and make you feel good. So, starting with gruelling workouts that are unpleasant will do yourself no favours! It is also important to set yourself goals to keep yourself motivated and track your progress. There are now a wealth of free applications on watches and phones that can be downloaded to track your goal progress, for example, Strava and MyFitnessPal. Use these to your advantage!
It is important to remember, you won’t see improvement from physical conditioning every day. However, making the regular commitment to doing physical activity is an achievement in itself, and every activity session can enhance your mental well-being.