Exercising for my Mental Health

Natalie shares with us her relationship with exercise and how it has impacted her physical and mental health.

10th May 2024, 5.00pm | Written by: Natalie

Regular exercise has always been part of my lifestyle. In addition to its physical benefits, it undoubtedly maintains and improves my mental wellbeing because… 

Exercise produces:

  • Endorphins – these interact with brain receptors to reduce pain perception and trigger positive feelings.
  • Serotonin – helps regulate mood, mental alertness, and focus.
  • Dopamine and norepinephrine – plays a role in mood regulation.

Movement is my “go-to” when my mental health dips and was a valuable part of my recovery during a period of mental ill health. 

Several years ago, I experienced complete burnout – mentally and physically, though exercise has also contributed to my burnout yet aided my recovery! Confused? Let me explain…

I had always loved ‘cardio’ workouts – lots of high-energy type classes – usually with loud, fast-beat music. I found they energised me, and I thrived on the social aspect of group exercise classes. However, when I started really struggling with my mental health, my physical health was affected too and suddenly, these classes had the opposite effect! Instead of invigorating me, they left me feeling totally exhausted and disappointed – why could I no longer enjoy something I really loved? 

I have since learned that HIIT (High-Intensity Interval Training) classes can increase adrenaline and cortisol levels. Little did I know that when I was severely anxious, these chemicals were already at high levels in my body and trying to ‘exercise off the stress’ was only pushing them higher, subsequently and significantly leading to burnout.

After weeks of being pretty much housebound, I started trying to get some fresh air and took up walking. I found that the movement (often with friends), started to help me feel better. As the exhaustion started to reduce, I thought I’d try a little gentle swim. I quickly felt the benefits swimming brought to my mental health. It was mindful activeness – I could only concentrate on my breathing and counting the strokes – it stopped my mind racing and reduced my anxiety. 

As I grew stronger and started to recover, I tried yoga. I’d heard that it was good for mental health and also thought learning something new might be good for me. What a revelation! It opened my mind to a whole new world of discovery of breath and meditation and physically improved my strength, mobility, and flexibility. I now teach chair yoga to introduce others (especially older people) to these benefits.

Nowadays, whilst I am fit and healthy, I choose which exercise to do depending on how I feel and what I need. When I’m feeling a little stressed, frustrated, or angry, I participate in an energetic workout like boxing or dance to ‘burn off’ those negative emotions. However, I am very mindful not to overdo it, or do only this type of exercise. 

If I am feeling a bit tired or low in mood, or even anxious, something gentler like yoga, a walk in the fresh air or a gentle swim, usually quickly alleviates these negative thoughts and feelings. During my working days, I take a few minutes throughout the day to stretch at my desk or move about, e.g., taking quick walks to the kitchen or around the block during my lunch break. It gives me the mental break I need, and I then find that I am much more productive throughout the day.


You may also like:

Living with Cerebral Palsy and Speech Impediment Has Its Challenges

Our Champion, Gavin, who lives with cerebral palsy, shares his experiences with the stigma he has faced living with the condition and its impact on his mental health.

23rd May 2024, 1.30pm | Written by: Gavin

Find out more

Sexism, Stigma and Mental Health: A Study of One

Our anonymous blogger talks openly about the stigma she faced after experiencing sexual assault and the impact it has had on her mental health.

23rd May 2024, 1.00pm | Written by: Anonymous Blogger

Find out more