6 best exercise activities for mental health

Photo credit: Ezra Bailey / Getty
Photo credit: Ezra Bailey / Getty

From Country Living UK

We know that getting sweaty does wonders for our physiques, but what about our psyches? Exercise is now widely deemed the not-so-secret recipe for boosting mood and reducing stress and anxiety. One study found that increasing your activity levels from doing nothing, to exercising at least three times a week, reduces the risk of depression by up to 30%.

Here are six types of workouts that could improve your mental health...

1. Running (or walking…)

Ask almost any runner you know and they'll confirm that the 'runner's high' – the clarity and expansion one feels after a jog or sprint session – is a thing. Melanie McKay took up the sport two years ago to lose weight but now continues for the mental health benefits, as well as the community she's met through joining a group.

She says: "Running calms me almost instantly. I have a fairly busy mind, but also one prone to some pretty dark thoughts. When I'm running I've got time to think things over, analyse, understand, and process. It's amazing to have something so simple to focus on which has such an impact. I'm so much happier as a runner."

Two 2007 studies MIND commissioned revealed that 94% said that green exercise activities such as running and walking had benefited their mental health so avoid the treadmill to boost results further. "Outdoor exercise or eco-therapy can be particularly beneficial and research suggests it can actually be as effective as antidepressants in treating mild to moderate depression," says Mind Information Manager, Rachel Boyd.

Photo credit: Gary John Norman / Getty
Photo credit: Gary John Norman / Getty

2. Boxing

Yes, the clichés around hitting pads and punchbags – being excellent for releasing stress and anger are true, reportedly even Prince Harry agrees he loves boxing for this reason. Finding an outlet for aggression can be both empowering and healing but also short, sharp 'rounds' of punching, followed by rest, results in an intense interval session, which releases lots of lovely endorphins. Then, if you choose to 'spar' with another boxer, you're almost duty-bound to enter 'flow', i.e. being focussed solely on the task at hand/present moment, a state that everyone from Buddhist monks to writers or Olympic athletes know to be blissful.

Trendy boutique boxing classes are popping up everywhere (e.g. the sport's goldenboy's Anthony Joshua's boxing gym Bxr), but local amateur boxing clubs also a very (cost effective) way of getting your punch on safely.

3. Pilates

"The mental health benefits of Pilates often get overlooked because of the traditional focus on Pilates for back health and core strength but in fact Joseph Pilates (Pilates' founder), believed so strongly in the connection between physical and mental health, and originally called his system of exercise 'Controlology', i.e. the control of the body with the mind.

"Learning the skill of Pilates and focusing on technique and how your body feels whilst in a class is a very mindful activity," says Karen Laing, a Pilates Instructor who has suffered with anxiety in recent years. "Pilates is brilliant for stress reduction and relaxation and great for Alpha types since there's no competitive element! Aside from the feelings of wellbeing from moving and mobilising your body, its focus on breathing and relaxation can help to switch on the body's parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for sleep and relaxation."

4. Yoga

One of the main reasons yoga helps us create better mental health is that it integrates body and mind (though it also works well when incorporated with talking therapy and meditation). "It's a bit of paradox – yoga looks like it's surface level but works deeply," says Toni Roberts, a yoga therapist specialising in mental health issues. "For everyone, particularly people who find it difficult or too scary to sit and look at their own mind, yoga can be a gateway to helping understand what they need physically mentally and emotionally. The continued focus on the breath brings yogis into the present moment and instigates a parasympathetic response from our nervous systems (responsible for 'rest and digest' and helping us calm down)."

These days there are as many types of yoga as there are superfoods. Hatha, Iyengar (more restorative practices), Vinyasa Flow, Ashtanga (more dynamic), Kundalini (spiritually led) aerial yoga (the upside down one) and but a few, though all contain the fundamental belief that we must balance our yin and yang (our more gentle and forceful energies) and work with our bodies to create holistic health and wellbeing.

5. Indoor cycling classes

It used to be a bunch of stationary bikes in a room with an instructor barking commands. Nowadays, spin studios are more like nightclubs: strobe lights, bespoke playlists and (sometimes) choreographed routines, all of which are intended to make fitness fun, bringing participants fully into the present moment and let them leave worry behind whilst they burn off anxiety via their pedals. One such studio is London's Boom Cycle whose founder Hillary Rowland is keen to ensure members' emotional and mental health improves as much as their physical fitness. She is only too aware of exercise's impact on the brain, saying:

"Regular exercise encourages neurogenesis which is the growing of new brain cells. This allows us to focus better and learn quicker - plus exercising gives you an energy boost and the more energy you have the more productive you are!"

6. Resistance training classes

Lifting weights or performing any bodyweight training can have a great impact on how you feel and look; build muscle and self-esteem as well as curb anxiety. Recent research shows that low-moderate intensity resistance training produces a reliable and robust decreases in anxiety, but there's also evidence to show it helps improve cognition and may improve the functioning of your central nervous system (which has a big impact on mood and fatigue levels).

Karen Tippett took up resistance training sessions in Kent – working with kettlebells and her bodyweight to perform - when her father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. "It was a time where it was necessary to keep going, keep focused and stay composed when I felt (and was) powerless and was constantly anxious," she says.

"Using kettlebells with a trainer made me feel physically strong & this helped me to be emotionally present and grateful for the time left with Dad. As I could feel my physical strength increase, I became bolder mentally throughout the cancer journey. Since we lost Dad the Kettlebells classes have provided an amazing support from the ladies in the class and left me with a (safe) exhaustion level that has switched my mind and thoughts off enough for me to sleep."

If you're a city slicker and early riser, try running and resistance classes with Project Awesome, a tight knit community determined to bring positivity into their lives with 6.30am exercise sessions every Monday Wednesday and Friday across the country.

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