Exercise: mental health and motivation

Don’t underestimate the mental health benefits of exercise – a healthy body can sustain a healthy mind.

  • A powerful mood-booster, exercise is one of the quickest ways of relieving stress. Indeed, exercise is often called a keystone habit – one that promotes other helpful behaviours. For example, people who regularly exercise are more likely to make healthier food choices, engage in better self-care rituals, and feel less depleted and passive in their lives. These associated feelings of greater competency and mastery in turn promote a better self-image and improve self-esteem. 
  • The cognitive benefits of physical activity can be extensive and enduring. Exercise enhances our concentration and alertness. Research indicates young people who engage in aerobic activity maintain their thinking and memory skills in later life. Additionally, physically-active middle-aged people are at reduced risk of dementia in older age. 
  • As little as five minutes of exercise can stimulate anti-anxiety effects, while research consistently finds exercise helps in the treatment of low mood. Active people are less likely to be depressed. Exercise reduces the risk of developing depression in the future. Crucially, while exercise might seem like the last thing you want to do if you are depressed, remember that exercise has been shown to help ease depressive symptoms. 
  • The social benefits of exercise are enormous. It has kept us all sane during lock-down. Pandemics aside, exercise can be a way of maintaining contact with friends, leading to a greater sense of belonging and togetherness. Indeed, when thinking of the more beautiful daily rituals, the Italian tradition of taking a stroll after meals, the ‘passeggiata’, comes to mind. 
  • Think back 12 months: many people repeatedly set goals to increase their stamina, to get fit and healthy and shed those Christmas mince-pie pounds, only to still be at the contemplation stage a year on. “I’m not ready yet”, “It’s too hard”, “I don't have the motivation.” One year on and the pounds have become kilos and the impasse has fed feelings of failure. 
  • The problem lies in the false assumption that one needs motivation first. Here’s a simple but important psychological principle: activation precedes motivation. Action first, motivation afterwards. For example, I don’t feel like getting up and going for a walk when I hear the alarm clock in the mornings, but I feel better and more energised when I am up and about. The motivation is a consequence of my actions and behaviour. I have created it through my choices. If I instead rolled over in bed and said, “I’m not going to get up until I feel motivated”, I could be waiting a long time, feeling more listless and demotivated as the time passes. 
  • ‘Motivation is not a bus that you get onto’, writes cognitive behavioural therapist Dr Robert Leahy. ‘You are the driver of your own motivation. Rather than wait for the motivation to show or wait to feel like you want to do it, choose to do it anyway. After all, what is the worst thing that will happen if you exercise or get some work done that you didn’t feel like doing? Will they take you to the Emergency Room: “He exercised but he wasn’t feeling motivated. Poor guy”’. Leahy’s point is that we should not wait for the motivation to show up. ‘Action and behavior create motivation. Maybe the motivation comes later.’ 
  • All that said, the thought of jogging or a lengthy walk can seem unappealing on dark, cold and wet winter days. At times like this, prompt yourself to get out by saying it will just be for five or ten minutes. Of course, once you have been out and about for five or ten minutes, you’re much more likely to want to extend your walk. 
  • There will be times when we fall short when it comes to our exercise goals, opting for the comfort of the couch and the TV after a long day’s work. This often prompts self-sabotaging and demotivating thoughts. People often beat themselves up when they slip, talking about how they have "gone back to square one". However, don’t confuse a lapse (which is a temporary slip) with a relapse (a full-blown return to the behaviour of old). Don’t fall prey to black-and-white, absolutist thinking (“I’m lazy”, “I’m useless”, etc). You’re human, so accept you’re going to slip up at times. You’re much more likely to get back on the saddle, so to speak, if you adopt an attitude of self-compassion rather than hurtful self-criticism. 
  • Finally, look at the language you use when it comes to exercise. “I have to go for a walk” makes it seem like a chore and drives feelings of dread and annoyance. Reframe that thought by saying “I get to go for a walk” – a simple little attitudinal shift that fosters feelings of pleasure and gratitude.

(First published in Southern Star on 28/01/2021)