The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

On May 11th, hundreds of thousands of people across the world took part in the tenth anniversary of Darkness Into Light. A powerful coming together of those affected by suicide, this Pieta House fundraiser began in Dublin’s Phoenix Park in 2009. In the early hours of the morning, 400 people walked together into sunrise, a symbol of the therapeutic counselling journey of those suffering with mental health issues. Since then, Darkness Into Light has expanded to an impressive 16 countries across five continents, with 200,000 participants taking part last year.

And while the event functions as a powerful symbol of overcoming depression and anxiety, it’s also an important reminder of the positive effects of staying active when it comes to managing mental health. Though it’s of course important for someone experiencing severe difficulties to reach out to a friend, family member or healthcare professional, maintaining an active lifestyle may help regulate negative emotions. Here are some of the mental benefits of aerobic exercise, be it running, cycling or briskly walking.

Balances Stress Hormones

Tough day at the office? When you’re stressed, it’s tempting to curl up on the couch and hope the feeling eventually alleviates. But actually, you’ll feel much better if you pull on those trainers and opt for some light exercise. Running reduces stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, instead stimulating the production of endorphins. These are chemicals in the brain that cause what’s known as the ‘runner’s high’, acting as a natural antidepressant and elevating mood.

Helps Improve Sleep

Stress and disturbed sleep often go hand in hand. So, as well as worrying about that big meeting at work, you’re also likely to be sleep-deprived, overly emotional and lacking in concentration. Again though, exercise can help! As well as the endorphins mentioned above, a brisk walk or run also helps release serotonin, a precursor to the hormone melatonin, which helps regulate the body’s sleep-wake cycles and internal clock.

Encourages You Out Into Nature

The setting of your exercise can also play a part in how it makes you feel. While gyms are certainly convenient, opting to supplement your visits with runs, walks or cycles through lush, green surrounds has been shown to be beneficial too. The theory is that we’re naturally attuned to nature, going back to our hunter-gatherer days. Therefore, immersing ourselves in scenic environments and fresh air has a natural therapeutic effect, calming us down, reducing blood pressure and decreasing stress.

Increases Confidence

When it comes to sticking to an exercise regime, it can be hard to stay motivated. The more we procrastinate, the worse we feel about ourselves, leading to a downward spiral of negative emotion. Thanks to all those endorphins though, you’ll find the more you exercise, the happier – and more confident – you’ll feel. Your fitness level will increase, you’ll start achieving the goals you set, and realise you can accomplish anything once you put your mind to it.

Interested in taking part in Darkness Into Light? Find more info, including how to register, here.