Ellie Goulding works out mindfully: so what’s the link between exercise and mental health?

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  • As our Guest Editor shares insight into how she moves for both body and mind. 

    Ever wondered how exercise and mental health are actually linked? Guest Editor Ellie Goulding certainly has and, in a candid conversation with Marie Claire UK, she’s shared her personal insights on the matter. 

    A keen exerciser, Ellies has always been an advocate for living a more active lifestyle and looking after your body. Posting on Instagram last year around the same time she released her book Fitter, Calmer, Stronger, she shared that working out, for her, is “never about vanity”; rather, keeping fit and strong has often “been [her] ultimate escape. “I have no extraordinary athletic ability, and as hard as it feels sometimes, I still passionately recommend movement for any mental health issues you are facing… even a small walk or jog.” 

    That said, she admits that she used to force herself through gruelling workouts to try and balance out the fast food and late nights of endless touring. 

    The singer is no stranger to exercise addiction – as above, the relentless touring cycles took a toll on her definition of “healthy living” – but working out more mindfully now is key, she shares, to making sure both her body and mind are in harmony. 

    “I was getting really obsessed with data, but I realise that’s not the best thing for me now,” she shares with MC UK. “I’ve started doing things a lot more fluidly and really listening to my body, not looking at how many calories I’ve burnt or how many steps I’ve taken. I don’t time my workouts – it works better for me to just have more freedom.” 

    Nowadays, the Love Me Like You Do singer only works out when she fancies it – we have it on good authority she’s a big Hydrow fan – and chooses to move in a way that boosts both her physical and mental health. 

    “I’m all about the science behind physical exercise,” she adds. “It’s so cool to understand how workouts affect your body – they increase endorphins and get the blood pumping, delivering fresh blood to your brain.” 

    Once a sedentary teen – Ellie was diagnosed with severe and debilitating asthma at a young age and then, at 17, realised it wasn’t asthma, but an easily treatable allergy – she now values feeling fit and seeing what her body can do. “The feeling of being strong has always worked for my mental health when I’m on stage or in certain situations that are male-dominated,” she explains. “Knowing that I have that physical strength makes me feel powerful and positive.”

    She’s not always motivated – far from it, but she knows that even 20 minutes of movement will often “make [her] feel at least 40% better – you know that it’s at least going to add something to your day,” she stresses. But embracing movement in any form – and further, understanding the link between exercise and mental health – has always been important to her. 

    So why – and how? – does moving your body lift a low mood? We’ve enlisted the help of Dal Banwait, otherwise known as “The Happiologist”, a positive psychology coach at Freeletics, and clinical-academic physiotherapist and ASICS ambassador Doctor Brendon Stubbs, to explain.

    Don’t miss our guide to workout recovery, our health editor’s game-changing fitness tips, and how to build a morning routine that works for you, while you’re here.

    Exercise and mental health: your guide

    First things first: it’s important to understand that the link between exercise and mental health has been recognised for centuries and studied extensively for over two decades. “In the last twenty years, researchers have found that humans are made to move,” shares Banwait. “Different structures in our body – muscles, bones, and brain – need physical activity to stay healthy.”

    Stubbs agrees, adding that while the earliest studies that definitively proved that exercise can improve mental health were conducted in the 1970’s, famous philosophers such as Plato famously referred to its benefits years ago.

    “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it”.

    Case in point: one University of Vermont study showed that physical exercise for in-patient treatment was so effective at alleviating symptoms that it reduced both patients’ time spent in an in-patient facility and reliance on psychotropic medications.

    Not only that, but a study in the medical journal The Lancet Psychiatry looked at three years worth of surveys and found that a person generally feels 3.4 bad mental health days per month. “Yet when they looked at people who included exercise in their daily routine however, researchers found that bad mental health days dropped by about 40 per cent,” she shares.

    Several other studies have shown that an active lifestyle is associated with a lower risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders.

    So, why? And how does exercise actually boost mood? Stubbs says that the short (and scientifically honest) answer is that scientists don’t know, at current. “One neurobiological explanation is a change to your brain structure and emotional processing areas, such as the hippocampus and anterior Cingular cortex, alongside activation of key pathways in these regions, and then release of key brain fertilisers,” he explains.

    Other theories relate to reductions in inflammatory markers which have been implicated in poor mental health, reductions in cortisol, and various other mechanisms, he goes on. Interestingly, the commonly held belief that exercise improves mental health by “endorphin” release isn’t actually all that solid. “It’s increasingly being shown as biologically implausible and far too simplistic to be attributed to one molecule,” he shares.

    Exercise and mental health: a woman working out

    Do note here, of course, that while exercise has been scientifically proven to improve mood, it’s not a replacement for medical attention or therapy. Do see a medical professional, if you are struggling with your own mental health.

    6 benefits of exercise on your brain

    Studies have shown dozens of benefits of exercise on mental health:

    1. Reduces chances of mental health disorders

    According to Stubbs, there is now robust data to show that engaging in regular physical activity can reduce your risk of developing depression by 20%. “This recent worldwide study – conducted over a time scale of nearly eight years – followed 260,000 people,” he continues. “Plus, the effect rises up to 30% when people engage in recommended guidelines of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity per week.”

    Similar research has shown that physical activity reduces the risk of anxiety and stress-related disorders in the future also, he adds. “There is now good evidence that as an add-on treatment to usual care, exercise can improve mental health symptoms.”

    2. Improves sleep

    Did you know? “Physical activity increases the quantity and quality of sleep,” explains Banwait. In turn, your mood is more balanced when you improve your sleep, and your stress levels tend to decrease, she goes on.

    3. Improves concentration

    Working out has also been proven to improve concentration, control, and our self-esteem.

    “These feelings can come from completing a single workout and tend to stay with us throughout the day in the form of productivity, improved self-love, and improved brain function,” she shares.

    4. Boosts energy

    Not only that, but exercise actually gives you energy, too. Sure, doing something – well, knackering – might not sound like it’ll make you less tired, but trust us on this one.

    High intensity interval training, reformer Pilates, Barre, or weight training – whatever your workout of choice, thanks to those handy endorphins, you’re near guaranteed to feel energised post-session.

    5. Improves memory

    Fun fact: exercise can improve memory by helping the brain create new neural pathways in different parts of the brain.

    “Studies have shown that a consistent exercise routine is associated with a higher volume in a few different brain regions,” shares Banwait.

    6. Exercise makes us more resilient to stress

    And finally, working out can make us more resilient to stress because it helps your brains produce feel-good chemicals like:

    • Serotonin – a neurotransmitter that has a direct effect on anxiety and depression
    • Endorphins – the feel-good hormone
    • Lowering cortisol levels – the stress hormone.

    Exercise and mental health: Two woman taking a selfie post-workout

    Keen to workout but not sure where to start? Let these tips help 

    1. Don’t be intimidated

    Feeling a bit intimidated by a workout setting or gym anxiety setting in? That’s normal – and do remember that a lot of progress can be made without a gym.

    Fitness apps are a brilliant way to get familiar with exercise and create a sustainable fitness regime which will help you to reach your goals without having to set foot in a gym,” shares Banwait.

    2. Build up slowly

    Little and often, and all that. “Do build your fitness up slowly when first starting to incorporate physical activity into your daily routine,” shares Banwait. “Don’t push yourself or your body too hard right out of the gate.”

    Try this: workout for ten minutes to begin with, then increase your sweat session for five minutes every week until you’re are comfortable working out for anything from 45 minutes to a full hour. Try our health ed’s go-to glute workout, core workout, lower body workout, or full body workout, if you’re stuck for exercise motivation.

    3. Find the right workout for you

    Most important of all: find a gym or workout that works for you. “You’ll want a space that is friendly, inclusive, and suits your needs – do what feels best for you,” shares Banwait.

    Think about it: you’ll never stick to a workout routine if you don’t actually enjoy it.

    4. Rope in a friend

    Making your workout time social time is one of the easiest ways to make sure you actually commit to sweat sessions.

    And remember, fitness comes in many different forms. “Spend time with friends, partner, family, and walk, run, or dance together, Banwait explains.

    5. Get to the root of the issue

    And finally, if you dread exercise or simply don’t enjoy it, she recommends working out why, exactly, you don’t like it.

    “Building a positive relationship with exercise is so important,” she explains. It’s not the enemy or an extra task, she goes on, so advises trying and getting to the root of what stops you from exercising more. Is it because:

    • You found it hard at school?
    • You don’t think you’re good at it?
    • You’re conscious that you might be judged?

    “Remind yourself that none of these things is true,” she encourages. “Pick something you enjoy, and you will no longer see it as exercise but something you love to do.”

    Bottom line: there are a whole plethora of ways that exercise positively affects our mental health, but do note, that no amount of exercise can replace prescribed mental health support from your doctor. Plus, exercise addiction is very real, so do be careful not to overdo it.

    Happy sweating…

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