Exercise. For some, that word will make you feel motivated and energised. Others feel a shudder of dread at the thought of it. Exercise does indeed have some unfortunate associations with lycra, expensive gym membership and being shouted at by a coach or personal trainer.
But exercise, in all its diverse forms, can have profound benefits on both your physical and mental health. Whether it’s a gym class, going for a run, playing sport, dancing, rock climbing, or simply going for a walk, it all counts. And there’s virtually no downside. Let’s look at both aspects:
It’s fairly obvious that exercise will positively impact on your physical health. It increases your heart rate, which makes your heart and lungs work harder to take more oxygen into the body. It also strengthens your bones and muscle mass. It reduces your risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke and some cancers, reduces blood pressure and cholesterol, and can help you control your weight.
What’s not always so clear is how physical activity helps your mental wellbeing. When you are active, your brain releases serotonin and dopamine which improve your mood and energy levels. Exercise has also been shown to help reduce the risk of stress, depression, dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Regular exercise helps you sleep better and can focus your mind on something other than anxious or stressful thoughts, which helps you learn positive coping strategies for difficult times. Some exercise like running or cycling can give you time to think clearly away from distractions, which can help you process your thoughts and manage them more effectively.
If you do a team sport, there are social benefits too – connecting with people who enjoy the same thing you do fosters a real sense of belonging and widens your social circle.
However, it can feel daunting to push yourself physically if you’re not used to it, and it can be difficult to motivate yourself if it's not something you enjoy.
Take me, for example.
I haven’t always been into exercise. From my teenage years onwards, the limit of my activity was walking to and from school, and even that stopped once I learned to drive. I was never overweight either, so just considered myself ‘one of the lucky ones’. That is, until I attempted to walk up the steps at Covent Garden tube station. I was in my early 20s and didn’t even consider that 193 steps would be a problem. At the top, I couldn’t get my breath, I had black spots in front of my eyes, and I was genuinely in shock at how much it floored me.
From that moment on, I decided that I had to improve my fitness. I dabbled in a few different things and built up some level of fitness. I managed to maintain a semblence of consistency, but I never felt a passion for it.
Then, in March 2020, like many other people facing the prospect of lockdown, I tuned into PE with Joe, mainly for the benefit of my son. He wasn’t interested in the slightest, but I surprised myself by really enjoying it. I kept it up, and three years later, I still do a HIIT workout with Joe 2-3 times a week. Even though I’m sometimes cursing his name during a session, I always feel better afterwards, like I can do anything!
Once my youngest started nursery, I began running too. I have run before, but never outdoors. I decided to push myself to try something new, and I’m hooked! The combination of the rhythm of my breathing and my feet on the road, the sights and sounds of nature all around me, and the time alone to think means that exercise has become my escape. Without fail, after a run or a workout, I feel elated, energised and strong. I’m always proud of myself for getting out there and doing it, and I feel more motivated to do everything else in my day, and better able to cope with the stresses of life.
There is nothing stopping you feeling like that too. The key is to take it step by step:
1. Deciding to do it is the most difficult thing. Once you’ve overcome that hurdle, you’re already halfway there!
2. Try different things until you find what works for you – it can be difficult to motivate yourself if you’re forcing yourself to do something you don’t enjoy, so experiment with different activities.
3. Take it slow and build up your strength and stamina. Overdoing it too soon could set you back, so take it at your own pace. The more you do, the easier it gets!
4. Start feeling the benefits, and learn to use exercise as a tool to improve your energy and general wellbeing.
Joe Wicks has a mantra: you never regret a workout. And he’s right. Even if you really don’t feel in the mood beforehand, you’ll never end a workout feeling like you wish you hadn’t bothered. So try to find 15 minutes for a workout - you won’t regret the burst of positivity that comes with it!