Exercising for happiness
Sanitary measures and lockdowns protect us physically from COVID-19, but staying mentally sound has been a challenge. In spite of restrictions regarding contact with each other, we need to stay in the healthy habit of exercising. It is part of a healthy lifestyle, of course, but it is especially important at keeping up our morale. Lace up your trainers, dare to challenge yourself and hang in there. Here are some of the benefits sport has on your mental health.
The best medicine: anti-depressant, anti-stress and natural mood booster all in one
Depression, stress, and anxiety are common mental health problems, which impact both well-being and productivity. However, all scientific research shows that exercising has positive effects on these disorders and on our mood in general. Engaging in sport has a similar effect to taking an anxiolytic or practising meditation. There is an additional benefit in the case of depression: symptoms are alleviated, plus the risk of relapse also decreases.
In particular, athletes are better at stress management. In stressful situations, the body “panics” less (heart rate, blood pressure, perspiration, body heat). Also once the stressful situation is over, the recovery time is shorter if you are in good physical condition.
As far as cognitive performance is concerned, practising sport improves just about everything: our ability to plan and solve problems, our ability to concentrate, our reaction time and even our long-term memory. We also gain more self-esteem, manage our emotions better and feel more capable.
Why does it work?
Several physiological and psychological processes are at work and their combined efforts generate psychological benefits.
First of all, sport is a distraction. It is impossible to serve well in tennis or send a climbing route if you are brooding over your own dark thoughts. Invasive negative thoughts are necessarily kept at bay during training.
Beyond allowing us to disconnect, sport also enables us to let off steam. By being active, we release nervous tension and increase our energy level. It is like pressing a reset button, we are physically and psychologically recharged.
Physical activity is also a way to find fulfilment. Even at a beginner’s level, sports sessions reinforce our sense of personal accomplishment, a feeling that is recognised as a protective factor against stress and anxiety.
Finally, there is also the well-being that comes after the activity, when you return to a calm state. Our muscles relax, we feel the euphoric and soothing effect of a delicious chemical cocktail. It comes from an increase in the level of certain neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers usually responsible for mood (serotonin), pleasure (dopamine) and relaxation (endorphins).
In practice: which sports programme should you choose?
There is no need to put pressure on yourself with hard-to-achieve goals. No need to sweat a lot either. The beneficial effects of exercise are felt even with moderate intensity (mild shortness of breath).
If you opt for swimming, cycling or running, 20 minutes of activity is already enough to enjoy a sense of well-being. For brisk walking, allow 25 to 75 minutes. Whatever it is, you should aim for two to three times a week.
Whatever the level of activity, after each session you will have an immediate positive psychological effect that can last from two to seven hours. From the eighth week onwards, you will experience more lasting effects on your mental health.
If circumstances permit, practice sport as a duo or in a team: it has been shown that this further enhances its beneficial effects. If you have access to a coach, it is even more effective. In fact, there are many mobile applications for doing sports with coaches by following their sessions remotely. Your whole family can benefit from them.
Finally, COVID or not, walking, jogging and cycling are still as simple, effective and encouraged as ever, so go for it!