When I am out running, I always have one question on my mind. This question grows as I acknowledge other runners with an understanding smile, or observe attentive cyclists trying to navigate families on their afternoon walk. Do these individuals understand the positive effect they are having upon their well-being?
This question has been heightened by the pandemic, with many individuals turning to daily exercise as an escape, seeking relief, alternative focus, and satisfaction. Improving fitness and physical appearance are the main drivers for exercising. Yet the effects that exercise has upon well-being are often overlooked.
It is not only the participation in physical exercise that is directly beneficial to well-being. Take, for example, going outside for a run. In addition to the happy chemicals released when exercising, the connection with nature has been proven to reduce stress and anxiety, while also enhancing overall mood. Additionally, the extra vitamin D reduces depressive symptoms and if music is present, this also helps to energise and act as a calming agent. All of this can lead to what we know as the ‘runners high’.
But what if running simply isn’t your thing? The beauty of physical exercise is that it can come in numerous forms, whether it is part of a hobby, social event or simply included within a daily routine. For example, gardening is a common hobby that involves physical activity, yet it is also a perfect example of the relationship with nature. Alternatively, for those keen photographers, have you ever found yourself climbing up that dreaded hill to get a perfect sunset picture?
The significance of exercise and its effects on well-being is becoming more openly discussed. A report by the Mental Health Foundation explained how regular exercise can improve sleep, promote energy, and help to manage depression. Additionally, celebrities are also opening up, with Ellie Goulding and Demi Lovato revealing their struggles with mental health and the significance of exercise to improve well-being.
The importance of physical activity and its link with positive well-being is also demonstrated in schools. Schools are focused on constructing a positive environment, where children can confidently challenge and express themselves. By incorporating physical education into a child’s school routine, they can put any extra energy to good use, which has been proven to reduce anxiety levels.
Similarly, work environments can often be associated with high stress levels. To address this, firms such as Expedia offer employees a wellness allowance, whereby money can be put towards fitness-related items. Relatedly, many firms offer free employee subscriptions to live exercise classes throughout the workday, encouraging employees to take frequent breaks. Not only is this improving physical health, but this is also contributing to improved morale, employee friendships, and a happier workplace.
Humans are naturally social creatures and physical exercise is a great way to unearth common ground while combating loneliness and improving overall well-being. Physical exercise provides individuals with the opportunity to catch up with family and friends, offering a chance to talk through worries and stresses without restrictions. A simple walk with a friend offers physical activity, a connection with nature and social interaction, all of which contribute to positive well-being. Yet, for all of those benefits, not even a penny needs to be spent.
Physical exercise, especially in group sessions can help to break down the stigma attached to mental illness. Charities such as Mind have created free online communities for individuals to connect with others to share tips on how to get active and, ultimately, improve well-being. This element of support can help those individuals simply unsure of where to start and provide alternatives to combating mental illnesses.
In some cases of depression, GP surgeries across the UK are keen to prescribe exercise as a treatment, due to the boost in mood that it provides.
If you find yourself feeling the pressures of everyday life, why not take the time to go outside for a walk, or choose to watch your favourite TV programme jogging on the spot? Given the benefits exercise has upon an individual’s well-being, it is important to identify the form of activity that suits the individual. In doing so, this will help to encourage motivation and enhance the positive effects. Even on those days when it a struggle to exercise, I have found that it is on those days that I often benefit the most.
Leah Bailie is an independent psychology researcher, who loves running and walking.