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06 Jun, 2022

Move For Your Mind with Sarah Elliott

Our Mind expert, Sarah Elliott, breaks down all you need to know about the benefits of movement on your mental health, and what to consider when incorporating mindful exercise into your everyday.


It goes without saying that the past few years have dramatically changed the way we think about how we live our lives. We’ve had to adapt our habits, navigate difficult challenges, and create resilience to get through the constant-changing landscape. And although many of us have started to settle back into some sort of routine, a lot of people are noticing and experiencing impacts on their mental health. 1 in 4 people will experience a mental health problem of some kind each year in England (1), and that was before Covid. Removing the stigma around mental illness has increasing been helped by more people speaking out about their experience and helping to create an openness and transparency around what it means to have psychological challenges but there is still a lot of shame and unawareness around how to help oneself or others. According to a study released by the World Health Organization, anxiety and depression increased by 25% in the first year of the Covid pandemic, but there are resources to enable you to play a part in your journey to a healthier, happier self.

The way in which we move, and exercise was definitely challenged during the pandemic and it isn’t new news to link the benefits of physical activity with a healthy psychological state, but why does exercise play an important role in mental health? And what are the different options available to people to experience those benefits, particularly when running or a gym workout is not accessible? There is a 20%-30% lower risk of depression and general feelings of distress for adults participating in daily physical activity (Start Active, Stay Active) and here are a few contributors as to how and why:

  • The ‘runners high’ that you may have heard of before is based on the REAL life release of neurotransmitters: Serotonin (the body’s natural happy hormone), Endorphins (the body’s natural painkiller), and Dopamine (the body’s reward chemical). Exercise can also reduce the amount of adrenaline and cortisol (stress hormones) in the body, even if vigorous exercise will produce an initial surge of moderate healthy stress, it will help the body learn how to be more resilient towards dealing with stress in the long term.
  • Movement helps create a more positive mindset. All humans are inherently built with a ‘Negativity Bias,’ which means our minds naturally look for threats to our safety and health. Therefore, we can find ourselves looking at the glass half empty, worrying about past or future events or being overly critical of ourselves. We can help this by playing an active role in noticing and creating positive moments to help counteract the bias. Research shows that to have a neutral view of the world a person would need to notice three positive moments for every negative one and five positive moments for every negative one in order to create a positive mindset. All this being said, exercise can be a positive contributing factor for a person given it’s a form of self care, helping tip their biased scale into a happier lens of viewing themselves and the world around them.
  • The mind also struggles to differentiate between what is real and what is imaginary. This explains why our thoughts (whether true or not) can run away from us and can create intense feelings as if the thought is real. Often in Psychotherapy, it can be helpful with clients experiencing anxiety or having unjustified worries to say: thoughts aren’t facts. This is why writing thoughts down or getting into ‘doing’ mode can help someone balance out their thoughts from facts. Exercise is a great example of something the mind can really see and feel helping keep a person in touch with their reality more than their worry mode.
  • Exercise is a method to process emotions/thoughts/feelings, without needing to describe or verbally communicate them. It can often be difficult to articulate or understand why we feel the way we do. Not everyone has the language or can find the right words to express what’s going on inside so movement can be an excellent alternative form of expression. It’s about using the body to communicate to yourself or others how you feel when you don’t have the words to describe it.
  • The Dopamine release we experience during exercise is our reward chemical and helps a person feel accomplished. There is a basic human need to contribute, whether that be to society, to others or to yourself which leads a person to feel like they’ve added value to their life. Movement is one way to feel as though you have succeeded at something. There are so many responsibilities we carry and are tasked with so by setting aside time to complete something good for yourself you will help create a sense of personal achievement and activate the reward centre of our brain.
  • Mindfulness is a topic that has become front and centre for creating wellness as it helps practice a more intentional way of living, allowing those who embody mindfulness to focus on what’s most important to them in any given moment and being able to let go of the noise that distracts and burdens them. Exercise can involve a tremendous amount of focus and allow us to practice being aware of our bodies and what we’re experiencing, helping to give us a break from thinking so much. Movement is a great chance to train your brain to concentrate fully on one thing and not get caught up in a Monkey Mind of mental chatter and multi-tasking, which can often leave us unproductive and burnt out emotionally and physically.

As you can see, exercise is a helpful habit in many ways and can be a supporting contributor to improving our mental health. There are though a few watch outs/cautions to be mindful of:

  1. Exercise is not a way to ignore your anxiety/depression, but is an aid to help process what’s going on for you.
  2. Women should seek help and look into understanding their menstrual cycle since it plays a crucial role in the effectiveness of our workouts. Having more knowledge in choosing what type of exercise will most benefit them depending on where they are in their cycle.
  3. Over training and burnout can severely impact your mental health, so be sure to check in with yourself, schedule days off and be sure to prioritise rest and recovery just as much as your workouts.
  4. Remember that exercise does not need to mean lifting weights or running 10km. Find and give yourself alternatives to movement so that it doesn’t become a choice of doing it or not but more a question of ‘what form of movement will benefit me most today?’ Do not neglect that Stretching & Low impact movement can still bring about the benefits mentioned above.
  5. Depression and anxiety can be very isolating and going about exercise can sometimes feel daunting or intimidating so try Group exercise or involving another person in your sessions which will leave you with a sense of community and belonging.
Discover more of Sarah through her work at Vault Coaching.

Discover our Summer Set: a programme based on taking control of your mind and body through 20 days of re-energising food & drink, movement, guidance and supporting gifts from independent, likeminded brands.

1. McManus, S., Meltzer, H., Brugha, T. S., Bebbington, P. E., & Jenkins, R. (2009). Adult psychiatric morbidity in England, 2007: results of a household survey.