4 MIN READ | Health Psychology

How to Stay Motivated to Exercise to See Benefits in Your Mental Health

Ellen Allsop

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Ellen Allsop, (2019, September 22). How to Stay Motivated to Exercise to See Benefits in Your Mental Health. Psychreg on Health Psychology. https://www.psychreg.org/motivation-to-exercise/
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What if I told you that approximately 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem at some point in their life and that suicide rates in the UK are increasing? Or that we live in a society where mental health problems are predicted to be the leading cause of mortality and morbidity by 2030? Would you want to find a solution to this problem to stop yourself becoming one of these statistics?

The good news is that although seeking professional support if you are experiencing mental health problems is crucial there is a simple thing you can do right now to help your mental health: exercise.

Everyone knows that exercise can lead to physical changes such as a change in weight, increase in muscle, or reduction in symptoms from illnesses such as diabetes. But there are many benefits to exercising which go beyond these physical benefits. You might feel increased levels of self-esteem and reductions in feelings of depression and anxiety. There is some debate as to how exercise leads to these increases in mood.

Some people think the increased levels of neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine in the brain following exercise are responsible, whereas other people think that the increase in self-efficacy of learning a new skill can cause a change in mood. Regardless of how the change occurs (and it is likely to be a combination of factors), one thing is clear, exercise is a brilliant way to improve your mental health.

There are many different types of exercise out there so there is bound to be something for you. A quick internet search will bring up a whole range of exercise groups, gyms, running clubs and yoga classes in your local area. Or you could simply put on your trainers and go for a short walk or run. Alternatively you could get on your bike and go for a cycle ride.

You don’t need the fanciest state-of-the-art sports watch or the most fluorescent trainers to get started, just some basic equipment and the motivation to actually exercise rather than continually put it off until ‘you have more time’ or ‘the weather is nicer’.

As I always tell people who are surprised that I will go running in pretty much any weather (I draw the line at black ice, thunderstorms and mid-day runs in heatwaves), when you live in the UK if you waited until the ‘perfect’ running conditions (and what even are those?) to go running you would probably go running less than ten times a year and so it is better just to be sensible in your clothing and route choices and head out anyway.

I get it though, if you are new to exercise and haven’t yet got to the point where it is actually enjoyable and something you look forward to rather than an additional task to add into your already jam-packed day, you might need some help getting motivated to exercise. The good news is there are many different ways you can motivate yourself to exercise.

The number one thing I would always suggest to people struggling to find the motivation is to set yourself goals. This means that when you get home from work after a busy day and the thought of sitting around and watching TV all evening is far more appealing than heading to the gym or going for a run, you can think of your goals and how you will feel when you reach them.

There are many different types of goals you could set. You could pick a race you want to train for (which has the advantage of having a set date to aim towards) or a weight you want to lift, for example.

The key with this is to make it challenging enough so you do actually need to work towards it but also realistic because it won’t do your motivation any good if you’ve never run before and decide that in a month’s time you will run a sub three-hour marathon as that is very unlikely to happen (and if it does I’m extremely impressed!). It also helps to make some process goals (things you will do regularly to keep you on track with achieving your main goal). For example you could say you will go to the gym three times a week or run five miles in total every week and gradually increase this distance as your fitness improves. Having someone like a partner or coach to keep you accountable to these process goals will also be helpful as you won’t want to let them down.

While you do still need to make sure that you have a certain level of intrinsic motivation to exercise because you actually enjoy it and find it beneficial, you can also use rewards to motivate yourself to exercise. In an ideal world we would all be able to bounce out of bed at 6am and start exercising because we just ‘know we should’ but realistically this often isn’t the case (I’m thinking cold dark Sunday mornings in January when it is pouring with rain and you’d rather stay in bed).

This is where external rewards are useful. How I use these is to record the distance I run in a spreadsheet and then every time I’ve run another 100 miles to reward myself with a special chocolate bar. This means that I need to go running because otherwise the chocolate will just sit there taunting me until I go running. The key here though is to be strict with yourself and actually wait until you have achieved whatever target you are rewarding yourself for reaching to have the reward rather than just giving in because that just defeats the point really.

Hopefully this has given you some ideas for how to stay motivated to exercise to see benefits in your mental health. Just remember not to overcomplicate it (exercise can get very complicated and technical in my experience but it really doesn’t need to be) and just find something you enjoy and do it regularly.


Ellen Allsop is currently studying an MSc in Sports and Exercise Psychology. She runs a blog which aims to promote exercise. 


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