The positive impact of exercise on mental wellbeing

Joel, Peer Worker at the Moray Mental Health & Wellness Centre, shares how exercise has helped him on his journey to recovery.

My journey to recovery has had several key factors, though it would have never started if it were not for my focus on physical exercise.
Before I took up long-distance running, I have always felt significantly anxious or nervous in day-to-day life. At the end of 2016, I was struggling both academically and financially with my Honours Degree – then numerous other life events really pushed my mental wellbeing to its lowest point that I had experienced.

On a cold January morning when I was not able to sleep, I decided to go a run around the town I used to live at. I realised as I ran around the block in the empty, dark streets, just how unhealthy I had become – yet I focused on how much better I felt just after about ten minutes of running. I think also as there was no one else on the streets that early in the morning, that I didn’t worry about who might have watched my attempt at running, so my anxiety was not a barrier to trying running.

Until I started work in 2019, from that night on January 2017, I went running nearly every other day. I didn’t have a particular goal, only to push myself to run the same ten-minute circuit every other day and maybe start adding extra minutes when I felt able. Nothing before has had such a positive impact on my mental wellbeing – it’s very much like a form of ‘active mindfulness’ where I am focusing so much on the running that all other thoughts fuelling my anxiety simply go away. Even when I am particularly stressed the more intrusive thoughts do cross my mind and have their moment, but then they go away. When I do come back home from the run, I still feel euphoric for many hours after and I have been able to notice that I feel physically and mentally ‘better’. I can see the change in my thought patterns and how I approach challenges in my life in a more mature and constructive matter compared to how I had been.

While balancing full-time work has meant that I’ve not been able to keep up the fairly competitive rate of running every other day, I have managed to keep up running when I get back from the bus stop to my home, with about eight minutes of running on most days. I still try to push myself for a full circuit on my days off.
The main thing that I try to pull from my life experience is that we all have different needs to our physical and mental wellbeing. For me, I needed to release that anxious energy and thoughts through running. It made me well enough to start volunteering in Peer Support; which has helped me get into employment, something I had never been able to achieve before.

While long-distance running might not be for everyone, I believe that everyone is able to find a physical activity that they enjoy. For everyone, not just those on their road to recovery, physical exercise can be a very positive aspect of their life. Never rule out the benefits of 150 minutes a week of exercise and what it can bring to your life.

How has exercise helped you to improve your mental wellbeing? Share your thoughts with others on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram by using the hashtag #fit150.