Exercise Yourself Happy! Get active to improve your mental wellbeing.

Exercise Yourself Happy! Get active to improve your mental wellbeing.

Puppets, festivals, children’s stories… in the seven years since the New Economics Foundation (NEF) launched their Five Ways to Wellbeing they have been popping up all over the place. People, young and old, are being encouraged to think about what keeps them happy and healthy.

Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Give

The Five Ways are simple actions proven to improve our quality of life. Plenty of other actions nearly made the cut, but we were pleased to see Be Active made it into the top five.

That doesn’t mean running for miles before dawn breaks (although if that is your thing, go for it). It means doing something that gets your body working and perhaps your heartbeat up. It means finding something that suits you and doing a little bit on a regular basis.

Ok, but what exactly IS wellbeing anyway?

Wellbeing is described as ‘a positive physical, social and mental state’. But it’s not about being completely healthy and incredibly happy all the time (if only…).

Wellbeing is having control over your life, feeling able to develop your potential, work productively and build strong relationships. It’s having the resilience and the mental tools to deal with the failure, disappointment and grief that are part of life.

We all know that exercise is good for physical wellbeing – but there is more and more evidence to show it is good for mental wellbeing too (1).

So how DOES exercise improve mental wellbeing?

So far, the research shows that:

  • Exercise enhances positive moods

When we’re in a good mood, even difficult situations feel easier. People who exercise regularly have higher levels positive emotions. They are more interested, excited and enthusiastic. (1)

Exercise can help prevent depression and anxiety and help improve symptoms in those who experience it. Gym membership is even being prescribed on the NHS. (2)

  • Exercise builds confidence and self esteem

Exercising gives us a sense of control. During exercise we make decisions about our actions and our environment. We develop and (sometimes) master skills. We take this confidence and increased self-esteem into other areas of our lives.

High levels of self-esteem about our physical ability and appearance have a strong influence over our overall self-esteem. In short, exercise helps us feel good about ourselves and our bodies. (3)

  • Exercise helps us sleep

Lack of sleep influences our mood, our concentration and our energy levels. Exercise has been shown to improve sleep quality, which in turn improves wellbeing.

  • Exercise helps us manage stress

Stress can cause long term physical and mental health difficulties. Studies have shown that people who exercise more have lower stress rates and are better able to manage stressful times.

This is all good news. If exercise were only good for our physical health it may become a tedious chore. The fact that it calms us, helps us stay positive, builds our confidence and improves our self-esteem means it might just become something we look forward to doing on a regular basis.



(1) Pasco JA, Jacka FN, Williams LJ, Brennan SL, Leslie E & Berk M (2011). Don’t worry, be active: positive affect and habitual physical activity. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 45(12) p. 1047-52

(2) Rimer J, Dwan K, Lawlor D, Greig C, McMurdo M, Morley W, et al. (2012). Exercise for depression. Contract No.: Art. No.: CD004366.

(3) 59. Paluska SA & Schwenk TL (2000). Physical activity and mental health - Current concepts. Sports Medicine, 29(3) p. 167-80.

(4) . Aldana SG, Sutton LD, Jacobson BH & Quirk MG (1996). Relationships between leisure time physical activity and perceived stress. Perceptual and Motor Skills, 82(1) p. 315-21.

Kouvonen A, Kivimaki M, Elovainio M, Virtanen M, Linna A & Vahtera J (2005). Job strain and leisure-time physical activity in female and male public sector employees. Preventive Medicine, 41(2) p. 532-9.

Gerber M & Puhse U (2009). Do exercise and fitness protect against stress-induced health complaints? A review of the literature. Scandinavian Journal of Public Health, 37(8) p. 801-19.


About the author

Clare (@fostress) writes and works for Mind, Time To Change, The Miscarriage Association and YouthNet. She blogs about mental health and manages her depression and anxiety by running with her collie Dr Watson.