How exercise affects your mental health

Whether you are training intensively, or you are dusting off the sports gear for the first time in decades, we almost always feel better after moving our bodies. We took a deep dive into understanding why exercise has such a positive impact on our mental health, whether there is a tipping point and how you can actively work on your mental fitness.

The benefits of exercise for your mental health

Many studies have shown that regular exercise, whether cycling, dancing or team sports, helps keep anger in check, reduces depression and anxiety, releases stress and tension, and generally makes you feel good. A 2015 study quoted in The Guardian even found that exercise can be as helpful in treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressant medication. But why is this?

To start with, the physical benefits of exercise – maintaining a healthy weight, improved energy levels and improved sleep quality – can also increase your self-esteem, boost your mood and help you manage stress. Exercising releases endorphins – the feel-good hormones which can lead to the infamous ‘runner’s high’. Spending time in nature has been shown to positively affect your mental health, whether this is a stunning mountain bike ride or a jog round your local park. An intense training session can also be a terrific way to healthily express anger and release feelings of frustration, whilst a good walk or easy session is often an effective way to think through a problem.

Beyond the individual athlete, training for a race or sports event helps you connect with others and gives a sense of belonging. There is a shared camaraderie and understanding built through shared suffering as you pedal up a climb and then share the tale over a coffee and slice of cake! Wherever you go in the world, the shared passion of sport will always put you in good company. Races also provide purpose and structure to your training, and often make pursuing healthier habits easier. Furthermore, mastering a new skill, completing a goal or taking a small step towards a healthier life tends to bring a rosy sense of achievement.

The tipping point

A study of 1.2million people in the USA found that though exercising 3-5 times per week for around 45 minutes can improve mental health, overtraining may have the opposite effect. Here, it is key to consider that overtraining is relative to your current fitness, conditioning and general lifestyle. What is moderate for an Olympian would not be moderate for a beginner. Interestingly, this study also found that cycling was one of the most effective sports in maintaining good mental health, which is good news for us triathletes!

Also, though most people would benefit from adding more exercise into their lives, at the other end of the spectrum is exercise addiction and obsession, or at the least a disordered way of looking at exercise – refusing to take rest days when injured for example. We all want to push our limits and find our true potential but keeping an eye on our mental health alongside our training schedule will help us optimise our performance. If you are overtraining, this will also affect your sleep quality which will have a knock-on effect on your mental health, decision-making and general wellbeing. That 5km PB is not more important than your sanity – and on the converse, keeping mentally healthy makes that 5km PB more likely!

The science isn’t conclusive on what the tipping point is – and it is likely to differ from one person to another. We recommend following the tips in our overtraining article to keep track of where you are at, physically and mentally, so you can make sure you are getting enough rest and recovery. Some of the indicators of overtraining manifest in dips in your mental health, for example when you regularly feel reluctant to train or you feel totally overwhelmed by the thought of your race.

Strengthening your mental fitness

We have established that regular exercise is good for our mental health, but there are other ways we can proactively ‘train’ our mental fitness. Unfortunately, mental health is still stigmatised somewhat and whilst most people accept that they must regularly exercise to maintain their physical fitness, most people do not treat their mental health in the same way. It is not weak to look at improving your mental health. Tackling it head on is a sign of strength which will have positive waves on your general wellbeing and athletic performance. You don’t need to be diagnosed with a mental health condition to benefit from mental fitness work.

Whether it is a short daily meditation, yoga, tai chi, gratitude practice or simply taking time out to take a breath, working on your mental fitness will increase your emotional resilience, confidence, motivation and determination. In the US study mentioned above, yoga and tai chi – classic mindful exercises – had almost as strong a positive effect on mental health as cycling and team sports.

Actively seeking to develop your mental grit will also help when you go through a tough moment in a race or when you have a difficult day. Progress is never linear. There will always be good and bad miles ahead but with mental fitness worked banked, you will be able to ride out the bad miles and better enjoy the good ones.

The whole team at Human Race sends you best wishes during these trying times. Check out our 7 tips for good mental health for ideas to improve your mood and motivation.

How are you keeping your mental health fitness up? We would love to hear your suggestions to share with the Human Race event community!

Mental health resources

If you are struggling, there is no shame in asking for help. Check out the NHS guide to Mental Health Services. Mental health charity Mind has lots of helpful information whilst they also have resources on how to support other people.