Exercise isn’t just about feeling good physically.

Cheshire based Personal Trainer Helen Murray takes a closer look at the positive effects it can have on your mental health

As a keen runner and coach, it goes without saying that I like to keep active. In fact, I’m not very good at sitting still at all. But sometimes, just like most other people, I really can’t be bothered to go to my Pilates class or to put my trainers on for a run, or to get up early to go to the gym.

Thankfully I usually manage to ignore the little voice in my head telling me to stay put and I’m always so grateful for doing so, because I ALWAYS feel better afterwards! The simple fact is that exercise benefits us in so many ways, both mentally and physically.

Exercise improves your mood. When you exercise your body releases feel-good chemicals called endorphins which produce a feeling of happiness. Even in the middle of winter, when it’s cold outside, wrapping up and heading out for a walk can instantly lift your mood. And what’s better, the feel-good factor lasts for a few hours after you have exercised.

Being active can reduce anxiety and help to keep you calm. Last summer, my husband and I went cycling in Italy. Before our trip, I had been worrying a lot about work and I was struggling to switch off. Cycling took my mind off EVERYTHING! It was incredible escapism and it really taught me to appreciate being in the moment. Exercise – even gentle exercise – gives you time and space to work things through in your head and being outside in fresh air can sometimes help you to see things from a different perspective.

As we get older and life expectancy increases, keeping fit and healthy becomes more and more important for our mental well-being, because it helps to maintain cognitive functions like attention and concentration. A clinical study in Japan by Kawano, Mimura and Kaneko (1992) found that table tennis not only boosts motor skills and cognitive awareness but also markedly increases blood flow to the brain which could possibly help to prevent dementia.

Goal setting plays a really key part in maintaining motivation when it comes to exercise. But achieving those small targets you set yourself also brings a real buzz which improves your confidence and builds self-esteem. At my “Workout Wednesday” lunchtime class, it has been amazing to witness everyone’s confidence levels increase on a weekly basis as they achieve things they didn’t think were possible. The mere act of running for longer or doing two more squats than the previous week is hugely motivating.

I really love seeing the positive impact exercise has on people when it comes to friendships, camaraderie and feeling valued. Whether you join a yoga class, cycle with friends or take part in your local parkrun, the value of sharing experiences with others should not be underestimated. I regularly arrange to meet a friend at the gym, mainly because it helps me to get up and get going! We also work harder than if we were by ourselves because we offer each other invaluable motivation and support. Exercising with others can also act as a wonderful sort of therapy as you inevitably catch up during rest periods or go for a coffee afterwards!

Keeping fit also improves your body image. I look back at photos of me as a chubby student and remember how self-conscious I used to feel. I now look at photos and I see a confident woman, usually wearing Lycra, but always smiling…probably from the endorphins which are whizzing around my body!

Helen Murray is a Personal Trainer and triathlon coach, based in Cheshire. Find out more at www.helenfmurray.wordpress.com If you haven’t exercised for a long time or you are concerned about the effects of exercise on your body or health, consult your GP.