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Get moving: just enough to make a difference!

Written by Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education, Suffolk Mind

Staying well – we know we need the right diet and regular exercise – but what are the benefits of moving for mental wellbeing?

How much moving do I need to do?
So you’ve got into a good routine over the summer months, perhaps going to the gym in the evenings or leaving the car at home and walking to work if you live nearby. But as the nights draw in over the winter months, the sofa looks ever more tempting when you get in from work and staying under the duvet seems a far better option than getting up to go for a morning run.

But isn’t just the warmth which seems more rewarding. Once our bodies get used to doing exercise, nature gives us less of the feel good buzz we get in the form of endorphins to encourage us to do more and vary our exercise routine. So not only does the warmth seem more appealing but we’re not getting such an easy pay off – now is not the time to stop!

What if we don’t have an exercise routine and don’t find the gym that appealing? Well for those of us who are not finely tuned athletes we can still get the benefit of endorphins – which boost our mood and promote emotional wellbeing. Just 30 minutes brisk walking three to four times a week – getting our heart rate above its resting level – is enough to trigger endorphin release which is equivalent in its effect to anti-depressant medication; and the effects of endorphin release are immediate too – so a quick reward!

Emotion means to move
The word ‘emotion’, from the Latin root emovere means to move - or stir us up! So when we emotions and feelings like stress and anxiety are switched on, we might feel the urge to get moving – which is a natural response. Going for a brisk walk until we feel slightly out of breath is a healthy way of lowering stress levels when we feel overwhelmed. And there’s a good reason for this.

Aerobic exercises, anything which gets our heart and lungs working a bit quicker, burns off the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol is released in response to stressful events alongside adrenaline. However, unlike adrenaline, cortisol can build up in our system if we are feeling stressed in response to unmet emotional needs which we haven’t addressed – to feel safe, in control of our lives, emotionally connected to others and that we are competent and have a sense of purpose, for example.

When cortisol builds up in our system, not only is our mental health and emotional wellbeing at risk, our physical health is at risk too, because too cortisol triggers a huge range of physical conditions; heart related conditions and high blood pressure; digestive tract issues including ulcers; skin conditions like eczema; plus, cortisol will inhibit our immune system, making us more vulnerable to bugs and viruses which we will take longer to recover from. That’s a short version of a list of conditions that none of us would want!

So not only do we get the reward of the endorphin feel good chemicals, we also protect our physical health too. And, if you can get moving with other people, perhaps joining a park run event, or organising a workplace walking group at lunchtime, you’ll also be meeting emotional needs for community and sharing attention – so whenever you cross the finishing line, it’s a win-win!