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How do you make the most of the psychological benefits of exercise?

How do you make the most of the psychological benefits of exercise?

We know that exercise can bring us a number of psychological benefits, from improved mood to increased brain power. How can we ensure that we're getting those benefits from our exercise regime?

Exercise has enormous potential benefits for our psychological wellbeing. There's the simple truth that a mind connected to a fit, healthy body will generally be a happier and more efficient mind. And then there are more specific benefits to mental and emotional functioning. Read on to discover how to make your fitness regime deliver when it comes to these psychological benefits of exercise.

Mood and self confidence

Exercise can have a positive impact on mood in a number of ways. The physiological processes at work when you get your heart pumping can give you a natural high based on endorphins and other mood-boosting neurotransmitters. The enjoyment of an activity you love and the satisfaction of achieving fitness goals have been directly linked to improved levels of happiness. Exercise can have a protective and even curative function when it comes to mood problems – it has been found to be particularly effective for managing symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Furthermore, exercise can also boost your self-confidence. Exercise has been shown to improve self-confidence. It can do this in a number of ways. The physical improvements you generally see as a consequence of exercising regularly tend to lead to a more positive body image. And that's not just about looking slimmer, stronger or more attractive – it's also about enjoying a sense of being healthy and well. Then there's the sense of mastery and achievement, as mentioned above, that can come with sticking to your goals and making progress, and lead to improved confidence in other areas of life as well.

To reap the mood-enhancing properties of exercise, follow these simple tips:

  • Find a form of exercise you love. Slaving away at something that feels like a chore is not going to do much for your mood!
  • Set yourself realistic, achievable goals, so that you get a sense of achievement and mastery – two key components of overall happiness – from the exercise you do.
  • Focus on the positive: Keep in mind your successes and all of the good things about exercise, rather than ruminating about perceived failures or hardships.

Brain power

Exercise can boost our cognitive functioning. In the short term, even half an hour of moderate exercise has been shown to be related to improved concentration and processing speed immediately afterwards. Over time, people with regular exercising habits show better attention and memory functioning, to the extent that exercise is now considered as a protective factor for dementia.

So how do you ensure that your fitness regime is good for your brain?

  • Moderate exercise seems to be best for cognitive benefits. Half an hour of feeling slightly out of breath, a few times a week, will improve mental alertness without exhausting you.
  • Make sure you stay well hydrated. The brain is mostly made up of water, and dehydration affects mental function long before any bodily effects are felt. Don't undo the benefits of exercise by letting your brain dry out in the process!
  • Consider taking up a form of exercise that involves using your powers of attention and concentration, such as Yoga. This kind of exercise can act as a direct workout for your brain as well as your body.

Stress and sleep

There's nothing like a bit of exercise to counteract the stressful nature of our everyday lives. The neurotransmitters and hormones released by your body during exercise directly counteract those involved in the fight-or-flight response that underlies our reactions to stressful events. One important mechanism in this regard seems to be the regulation of cortisol, which is involved in the stress response. Individuals who exercise regularly show better cortisol regulation than those who do not, even when the stressors that people are exposed to are controlled for. This effect occurs both for responses to immediate, specific stressors and for chronically high stress levels. It also helps that exercise is generally associated with better quality sleep, which gives us the mental and physical resources needed to handle the stress in our lives.

You too can harness the stress-busting properties of exercise:

  • Aim for a mix of moderate to high intensity and more gentle, low-intensity exercise. The former will help you to channel stressful feelings and benefit from the natural high that is entailed in getting your heart pumping. The latter will help you to develop a calmer approach to life and its stresses.
  • Don't let exercise become another source of stress. If it feels arduous or unpleasant, it's time to reconsider what you're doing and find alternative ways of looking after your fitness.
  • To reap the sleep-improving benefits of exercise, keep moderate to high intensity exercise for the first half of the day. Exercising vigorously too close to bedtime can make it harder to go to sleep. If you want to exercise later in the day, opt for gentler, calmer routines that emphasise relaxation.