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The power of movement on mental health

We know that exercise is good for us physically, but just how much impact can movement have on the way we feel?

According to a 2018 study analysing info from over 1 million people, those who exercised had 43% fewer days of poor mental health than individuals who didn’t exercise. The best results were seen for team sports, cycling, and aerobics although all movement types saw an improvement in mental health. [1]

“Moving more can have a profound positive impact on mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood. It can also improve self-esteem, memory, and cognition (brain power).” Grace McMahon, Beingwell Life Coach

Researchers have also explored movement as a tool for treating anxiety. When we’re spooked or threatened, our nervous systems jump into action, setting off a surge of reactions such as sweating, dizziness, and a racing heart. Regular movement might help those of us prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when we experience fight-or-flight sensations.

And we don’t need to pop a blood vessel or pump iron ‘til we pass out. Just 30 minutes of movement, such as a brisk walk, 3 days a week is enough to see the benefits. We don’t need the 30 minutes to be continuous either (hallelujah!); three 10-minute walks are just as good! [2]

What can we do though when our mental state makes going to the gym or getting dressed for a run feel like a herculean effort?

Figure out what lights us up!

What types of movement spark a bit of excitement? Do we love gardening, walking in nature, playing rounders with our kids, swimming, yoga? Doing what we love (or at the very least don’t hate) can help us make a start.

What's holding us back?

Figure out what might be stopping us. Do we feel self-conscious? Can’t afford the gym or fancy exercise gear? Too tired? Don’t have the time? Sister’s friend’s mother’s brother’s fish died? Tragic! Looking at what might be holding us back can help us find a solution such as moving during our most energetic time of the day, or splitting exercise down into small chunks of time.

Start small

We’ve said this before. We don’t have to set a mammoth goal to walk for an hour five days a week if we barely leave our homes. Let’s think realistically. How about yoga or gardening for just 10 minutes? Or, a 1-minute run? (have a nosey at ‘Why motivation isn’t about shooting for the moon’)

Don’t think of it as a chore

Often exercise can be another “should” in our lives. One we use to beat ourselves over the head with, especially when we’re sedentary. Let’s look at movement or exercise the same way we look at therapy, counselling, or medication – another tool to support our mental health.

“It’s medically proven that people who do regular physical activity have up to a 30% lower risk of depression.” NHS

Find our cheerleaders

Would it be useful to chat with our doctor or mental health professional for a spot of guidance and support? Or could we speak to friends and have an ‘accountability buddy’? Someone who cheers us on (and who we can cheer on too). Having others around us for encouragement can make all the difference.


Keep going: Let’s give ourselves credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how tiny. If we skip exercise one day, that doesn't mean we can't maintain a movement routine and might as well quit. Just try again the next day. Stick with it and celebrate the small steps.


1. Association between physical exercise and mental health in 1·2 million individuals in the USA between 2011 and 2015: a cross-sectional study (2018). The Lancet.

2. Sharma, Ashish et al. Exercise for mental health (2006). Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry vol. 8.2




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