Moving on up: Physically active, mentally stronger

Want to feel better, have more energy and even add years to your life? Just exercise. Whilst it seems that even though most people in the UK claim to be health conscious, surveys reveal that 44% do no regular exercise at all, and more than 74% of men and 64% of women in the UK will be overweight or obese by 2030, according to the World Health Organisation

Most people see physical activity as an exercise routine and start exercising as a physical fitness goal–usually to lose weight, improve physical health, or tone up. And this is great. But, many are unaware of the mental health benefits to be gained through being physically more active in general.
There is growing evidence and understanding of the ways in which people who are more active tend also to have improved cognitive functioning and better thinking, learning and judgement. Being physically active also seems to enable people to tap more readily into their intuition and creativity.

Let’s get physical…physical!

Physical activity helps maintain and improve mental wellbeing and provides protection against chronic stress and anxiety. It improves self-regulation, as well as deeper relaxation and better sleep. Aerobic activity increases levels of serotonin and dopamine, the feel-good chemicals in the body improving our thinking, mood and overall energy.
A key process is thought to be increased levels of ‘brain derived neurotropic factors (BDNF)’ which help new cells grow and develop.
BDNF is actively involved in both your muscles and your brain, and this cross-connection appears to be a major part of the explanation for why a physical workout can have such a beneficial impact on your brain tissue. It, quite literally, helps prevent, and even reverse, brain decay as much as it prevents and reverses age-related muscle decay.
The most important message from studies into changes in the brain as we age is that mental decline is by no means inevitable, and that exercise is as good for your brain as it is for the rest of your body.  What’s more many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t.
“Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.

How much exercise do we need to stay healthy?

According to the NHS guideline adults need to do two types of physical activity each week; aerobic and strength exercise and also does depend on your age. For 19-64 year olds it should be:

  • 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity, e.g. cycling, fast walking every week, or
  • 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, e.g. running or a game of singles tennis every week, or
  • A mix of moderate and vigorous aerobic activity, 2 x 30-minute runs, plus 30 minutes of fast walking = 150 mins of moderate aerobic activity


  • Strength exercises on 2 or more days – these should work all the major muscles (legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest shoulders, arms)

But emphasise that these really are minimums – we need to be getting this much.

Spending minutes to gain minutes

150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity per week can significantly decrease the risk of dying prematurely.
How? By lowering blood pressure and resting heart rate, and increasing nitric oxide levels, which serves to open up blood vessels. It also increases levels of beneficial HDL cholesterol and lowers levels of damaging LDL cholesterol.
In addition, regular physical activity increases insulin sensitivity. This is especially important for people with diabetes — and it can also help you avoid the disease in the first place.
On a more positive note, maintaining a physically active lifestyle can give your performance a boost:
For example, a UK university found that on the days individuals exercised:

  • 33% felt they were more motivated,
  • 72% had better time management, and
  • 79% demonstrated improved mental concentration and performance.

One of the great things about physical activity is that there are so many ways to be active, whether its short spurts throughout the day, or setting aside specific times on specific days of the week to exercise.

Be a movement opportunist

Go to bed and get up earlier. If your days are packed and the evening hours are just as hectic, go to bed and get up 30 minutes earlier twice a week to exercise. Once you’ve adjusted to early-morning workouts, add another day or two to the routine. Once your morning workout is done, it’s done. You will feel the benefits throughout the day ahead.
Fuse movement into your busy day. Use a little creativity to get the most out of your time. Squeeze in short walks throughout the day or evening. If you don’t have time for a full workout, don’t sweat it. Shorter spurts of exercise, such as 10 minutes of walking spaced throughout the day, offer benefits too.
Turn your commute into a workout. Run to work, or not a runner? Bike to work, get off your bus or train a few stops earlier, or park the car farther away to extend your walking time.
Power up your stair climbs. Instead of walking leisurely up a flight of stairs, gradually increase your speed and the number of stairs you take in one minute.
Revamp your rituals. Your weekly Saturday matinee with the kids or your best friend could be reborn as your weekly Saturday bike ride, rock-climbing lesson or trip to the pool. Also think about how you can make time for the kids or your friends during the week – by leaving earlier on some days.

Take control

Arrange your diary around your work commitments and prioritise exercise. Manage interruptions and distractions and ensure you nothing gets in the way of your commitment to exercise and yourself.  These are all small steps but they add up!
If you missed your workout today – don’t worry, don’t give up! Find your motivation, make a plan and visualize the future you, to become more physically active and mentally stronger.
This article was provided by Feel Good – who focus on wellbeing in the workplace
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