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Dr Stella Rendall is our Research Psychologist, working in the Data Insights team at Mental Health Innovations. The theme for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week (13 - 19 May) is 'Movement: Moving more for our mental health’ and in this blog, Dr Rendall examines the research around the benefits of physical exercise for positive mental wellbeing, taking a look at the data around coping skills mentioning movement from the Shout text support service.

The importance of physical exercise, broadly defined as any bodily movement produced by our muscles that results in energy expenditure for good mental health, is well established. The benefits include managing symptoms of depression and anxiety, uplifting mood, managing stress, improving cognitive function, confidence and self-esteem, as well as providing an opportunity to socialise and meet new people, thereby combating loneliness.

Physical exercise has also been demonstrated to be an effective approach to improve sleep quality and manage insomnia; which is linked to poor decision-making, depression, suicide and risk taking behaviour.

Physical activity has a mood-enhancing effect, releasing endorphins; powerful chemicals in the brain that promote happiness. Exercise can also help distract from negative thoughts and feelings, and provide the opportunity to try new experiences. In addition to boosting our mood, endorphins are also calming hormones and stress relievers that help to reduce stress and anxiety, and promote better sleep.

Further, physical exercise boosts the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin levels, which helps improve concentration, attention and motivation, and has been found to be an effective way to reduce the symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Moreover, engaging in regular physical exercise is an investment in one’s body and mind that energises, helps foster a sense of achievement and boosts self-esteem.

To reap the health benefits of physical exercise, both immediately and over the long term, it is recommended that adults engage in at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity per week, the equivalent of 15 - 30 minutes five days a week. For children and young people aged 5 to 18 years, the recommendation is an average of 60 minutes of moderate or vigorous intensity activity a day across the week. Moderate intensity exercises include activities such as a brisk walk, cycling, swimming and dancing, and can also include household tasks such as 30-45 minutes of vacuuming, mowing the lawn and gardening. Examples of vigorous intensity exercises include running, aerobics, fast swimming, and team sports such as football, rugby, netball and hockey.

Every day, hundreds of people who are anxious, stressed, depressed, suicidal or overwhelmed text our service Shout in need of immediate support. We engage with compassion and kindness, validating texters’ thoughts and feelings so that they feel heard and supported to think more clearly about their next steps. We also encourage texters to use the coping strategies that have brought them some relief during previous experiences of distress.

We conducted a large-scale analysis of more than 700,000 conversations, where we identified 32,947 exercise related coping skills that our volunteers discussed with texters who contacted Shout during periods of distress. Walking, football, running, gym, yoga, swimming and dancing are some of the physical activities that texters engage in to manage overwhelming thoughts and feelings.


Word cloud of exercise related coping skills discussed with texters who contacted Shout

Our analyses find that many texters, particularly those with suicidal thoughts and the urge to self-harm, mention that exercise helped distract their mind from overwhelming thoughts and feelings, as it provides an alternative focus for their attention. They describe feeling better as a result. Texters also engage in physical activity to feel strong when they are overwhelmed by life, and describe feeling more energetic and confident to cope with their mental health challenges.

“After feeling suicidal earlier I was really grateful to have someone impartial to share my worries and feelings with. I felt heard and respected. I decided to take myself off for a run and I ran really hard completing the 5k distance. I'm feeling a lot better after the run and the chat. Thank you so much for your time, I am extremely grateful. I have a 6 year son who would miss his mummy if the black dog won”. - Shout texter

“Very helpful thank you, you helped give me more room to think about what to do and make moves to help myself. I went for a walk and feel a bit better”. - Shout texter

Some texters find that physical exercise has a profoundly positive influence during periods of low mood, as it helps induce positive feelings during periods of depression and sadness. Some texters experiencing loneliness and isolation describe exercises such as walking and team sports as excellent opportunities to get out and connect with their environment and socialise with others, which helps reduce feelings of loneliness.

“You were a light in the darkness! I was crying when we started the conversation but now I feel much better. I booked yoga for tonight so hopefully I will be settled. I am sure you will have a blessed life, thankyou” - Shout texter

Others engage in some form of physical exercise to feel calm, relaxed and to think more clearly, so they are better equipped to cope with various stressors including relationship difficulties, financial difficulties, work and exam stress. Texters struggling with insomnia talk about the relaxing effects of physical activity which helps to soothe them, induces sleep and results in improved sleep quality. Those experiencing anxiety describe physical exercise as an effective stress reliever.

“Thank you for helping me feel better. I did yoga, had [scrubbed], all with the thought that I deserved that time, which helped me to rest into it. My mind feels freer - thank you. Having your input was so useful”. - Shout texter

Shout’s unique anonymised dataset enables us to gain valuable insights into the mental health issues faced by texters, and the coping strategies they use to manage their distress. Physical exercise is clearly an important mental health coping skill; alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety, relieving stress, improving sleep quality, boosting cognitive function, and creating a distraction from preoccupation with negative thoughts and emotions.


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