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Making a Strong Case for Exercise

Updated: Nov 22, 2021

The way we feel can impact our movement. When anxious we may rush around or become paralysed. When tired, sad or depressed we may move more slowly. Equally movement can impact how we feel. Yet often when people highlight the importance of exercise they focus on the impact it can have on making us stronger, fitter and leaner. The hugely positive impact exercise has on our brain and mood frequently forgotten.

The case for exercise as a way to maintain positive mental health is pretty strong. Research shows that it can:

Exercise can also improve sleep, another cornerstone in brain health.

One perplexing question is, why, considering the multitude of positive benefits that exercise provides, are human beings so hard at keeping moving? In a recent study 25% of the UK population reported that they were inactive and this was associated with higher levels of life dissatisfaction and loneliness.

One challenge is that we don’t fully consider how to incorporate physical activity into our daily lives. This can prevent it becoming part of our routine. Making movement habitual is helpful as it reduces the cognitive load of the how/what/when of working out. This then increases the likelihood of us engaging in physical activity even when we 'don't feel like it' which often has the biggest mood boosting payoff.

One way to incorporate regular physical activity is to tie the new behaviour to an already existing routine. By doing this it makes it easier for it to become habit as the current habit cues the new one. If you want to start walking for 30 minutes each day think of an already habitual activity which the walk could follow. Once these chained behaviours become a habit they form a routine that is easier to maintain.

Another proposal for why we struggle to maintain regular exercise in our lives is a tendency to do too much too soon. The belief that the harder the workout the “better” can result in people starting off with an overly challenging programme. This results in a higher likelihood of injury which in turn can impact movement. Additionally working above the respiratory threshold (where it becomes hard to talk) postpones what is usually an immediate post exercise mood boost by around 30 minutes. More moderate exercise gives an immediate mood enhancing payoff and is less likely to lead to over training and burnout. What is most important when choosing physical activity is to focus on what you enjoy as this has greatest impact on mood improvement.

Aerobic (e.g. running) and anaerobic (strength training) exercise are both associated with positive psychological effects. In fact any kind of physical activity e.g. housework and gardening will help to reduce psychological distress. Whatever it looks like, moving your body protects your brain.

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