Mental Health Awareness Week: Professor Robert Thomas explains why exercise helps the brain

Watch more of our videos on Shots! 
and live on Freeview channel 276
Visit Shots! now
During Mental Health Awareness Week, Professor Robert Thomas explains how exercise can help the brain

A jaw-dropping 20% of the UK population have symptoms of anxiety, depression and ADHD. On a global scale, more than 300 million people of all ages suffer from depression alone, making it one of the leading causes of years lived with a disability worldwide.

The good news is that more and more scientist are discovering that we can significantly modify ours risk of common brain disorders as well influence the rate of cognitive decline, dementia, Parkinson's and other degenerative brain conditions.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

For Mental Health Awareness Week, running from May 13-19 we will be highlighting a series of dietary and lifestyle habits which have be shown to impact brain and mental function. This week we will focus on the evidence for sleep, omega fat intake, alcohol, smoking, plant based diets, vitamin D, iodine and essential mineral deficiencies.

Today we start with exercise - why it has such profound benefits for mental health, which regimens are the best and practical tips to incorporate more physical activity in our daily routine:

Why exercise helps the brain and mental health

Happy chemicals are stimulated during and after exercise. These include neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin, which are known to improve mood, happiness and reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.

Professor Robert Thomas recommends aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, swimming and fitness classes for boosting mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Picture: PAProfessor Robert Thomas recommends aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, swimming and fitness classes for boosting mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Picture: PA
Professor Robert Thomas recommends aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, swimming and fitness classes for boosting mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Picture: PA

Brain plasticity improves with exercise which enhances the ability of the brain to adapt and reorganise itself. This can lead to improved cognitive function, memory, and better resilience to bounce back after negative life events. Stress reduces via a lowering of the stress hormone, cortisol. High cortisol is linked to agitation and anxiety.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Sleep quality and duration is improved especially if exercise is taken in the morning in the light which also helps maintain the circadian rhythm. Adequate sleep and a healthy circadian rhythm is essential for reducing day time fatigue, improving mental alertness, boosting motivation and optimal emotional well-being.

Engaging in physical activity provides a healthy distraction from negative thoughts and worries. Social Interaction is a part of many forms of exercise, particularly team sports or group fitness classes. Social support is crucial for maintaining mental health and resilience.

Blood flow to the brain improves, increasing oxygenation, delivery of essential nutrients and removal of toxins, all essential for its proper functioning.

Hormonal balance is also better in people who exercise regularly, especially those involved in mood regulation, such as thyroxine and adrenaline and, as mentioned above, cortisol.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Self-esteem and confidence can improve as person gets stronger, feels fitter and looks better. Improved self-esteem and body image, are closely linked to mental health.

Brain repair is stimulated after exercise promoting the growth of new brain cells, particularly in areas associated with learning and memory. This process, known as neurogenesis, contributes to improved mental health and a slowing of natural decline over time.

Best exercises for mental health

The best exercises to improve mental health are those that you enjoy and can consistently incorporate into your daily routine, for the longer term. Here are some types examples:

Aerobic exercise such as walking, cycling, swimming and fitness classes are great for boosting mood and reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. Aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise most days of the week. The parkrun is an ideal incentive to get out of bed on a Saturday morning to exercise and meet new people.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Strength training such as weightlifting, resistance band exercises, and bodyweight exercises like push-ups and squats not only build physical strength but also improve mental resilience and self-esteem. Aim to incorporate strength training exercises into your routine at least two to three times per week.

Yoga and Pilates combines physical postures, breath control, and meditation, making them an excellent practice for reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. They focus on mindfulness can promote relaxation and emotional balance.

Tai Ch and other martial arts combine physical activity with balance mental discipline, deep breathing and focus, promoting stress relief and emotional well-being.

Mindful walking in nature can be incredibly beneficial for mental health. Pay attention to your surroundings, focus on your breath, and allow yourself to let go of worries and distractions.

Hide Ad
Hide Ad

Team and competitive sports like football, basketball, table tennis or badminton not only provides physical benefits but also fosters social connection and a sense of belonging, which are crucial for mental well-being. Walking football is great for men and women who enjoy a competitive edge.

Dance is a fun and expressive form of exercise but also a mood-booster. Whether it's taking a social dance class or dancing around your living room, moving to music can lift your spirits and reduce stress.

Ultimately, the key is to find activities that you enjoy and that fit your lifestyle, allowing you to experience the mental health benefits of regular exercise. Mixing different types of exercises can also keep your routine interesting and challenging.

Comment Guidelines

National World encourages reader discussion on our stories. User feedback, insights and back-and-forth exchanges add a rich layer of context to reporting. Please review our Community Guidelines before commenting.