Health and Happiness: the feel-good effects of exercise

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As university students, we are all too familiar with stress. Lots of us are also far too familiar with mental health struggles (with depression and anxiety being prominent in student groups). Living with stress, anxiety or depression is all about finding a way to cope and minimise any suffering.

Keeping active is a hugely powerful tool within this internal battle. This is because, when we exercise, our brains release neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine. Serotonin aids alertness and dopamine is involved within the brain’s reward and pleasure centres. Both neurotransmitters influence conditions such as anxiety and depression, and the levels of the neurotransmitters can be modulated by exercise.

Sam – I have done personal research within this field and found a striking relationship between involvement in sports and reduced rates of depression (and I would hypothesise that further research would show a similar relation with anxiety rates).

For some of us, using exercise as a pathway to feeling better is the norm. But for others, exercise is not a simple matter. There are plenty of people out there who don’t feel confident exercising in front of others and some of you may not even know where to begin when it comes to exercising. We aim to show that there are exercise types out there that suit you and, as a result, even those ‘exercising novices’ can begin to exercise to feel good and to feel good exercising.

Gyms are probably one of the first things that spring to mind when we think about exercising. Gyms offer a wide variety of activities that aim to satisfy everyone’s exercising preferences. From yoga to spin class; from weightlifting to swimming; from machine work to playing tennis, it is clear to see that gyms offer something for everyone. They’re also often full of people who are more than willing to help those of us who aren’t familiar with exercising. For instance, gyms tend to offer new members inductions that show people how to operate gym equipment.

When we are advised to exercise to boost our mood, exercising with others can add further benefits. The mental health benefits of socialisation are very much within the same beneficial realm as those associated with exercise itself. Going to the gym (whether it be using equipment or taking part in an exercise class) is something you can easily do with friends, or even provide an opportunity to gain new friends.

Gyms are fantastic, but they’re not always accessible: price and location (or even a viral pandemic) can make gyms a non-viable option at certain times, or for certain people. For these reasons, perhaps some of the other suggestions in this article may be more suitable for you.

As we mentioned previously, exercising with others is vital for mood regulation and improvement. Participating in a sport is an excellent way to do this. Team sports, such as football, rugby, netball (and many more) offer great opportunities for being active, whilst also socialising. Lancaster University offers a variety of team sports that would be worthwhile considering joining in the next academic year. Don’t worry if you’re not the greatest sportsperson in the world, teams here can vary in level of skill. Non-team sports also offer excellent socialisation opportunities. This is because you can attend groups alongside, and compete against, other individuals who are interested in such sports. Just as is the case with team sports, Lancaster University offers a multitude of sport/exercise groups at various levels of difficulty.

However, as with gyms, participating in a sport also has its limitations. Firstly, it can pose financial limitations. For example, if you were wishing to join a local or university sports team (perhaps like golf), you would probably have to pay for some rather pricey equipment. Secondly, sports teams can be difficult for those who are not comfortable exercising in front of others and/or competing against others.

Joanna – I myself have plenty of memories of participating in sports during PE lessons at school that are associated with feelings of terror and embarrassment (primarily embarrassment).

Sam – Whereas for myself I was always really competitive, so I loved playing sports with and against others. This meant that PE lessons, team sports, and individual sports were right up my street.

For those who aren’t looking for social sport or competition, there are more independent exercises that can be done in environments where you are most comfortable. There are plenty of websites and videos available online to help your independent work. Exercise videos (including Pilates, yoga, ‘ab blasts’), from both of our own experiences, are excellent ways to get used to exercising before deciding whether you want to broaden your horizons. Here you can take things at your own pace and you can figure out what kinds of exercise you enjoy doing.

Another thing you can do is make changes to your daily routine. Perhaps, instead of using a car or bus, you could walk/cycle more often. You could also make cleaning or cooking more active experiences (playing music when doing mundane household activities can be a big help to get moving more). All of these seemingly small tips and tricks are fantastic ways to keep yourself healthy, thus keeping yourself happy.

Given the current issues regarding the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, it is important we all must keep ourselves active because our mental and physical wellbeing is crucial during these difficult times. This will be increasingly difficult as more and more of us are forced to spend much of our time indoors. But there are ways to be active in our living spaces; as we’ve previously mentioned.

We hope that this article has been helpful to everyone who has read it. Just to emphasise once more, exercise is vital for mental and physical health. It’s a necessity. You don’t have to be doing hours of highintensity exercise a day to make yourself feel better – just do what you can. It is vital that we look after ourselves, especially nowadays, and keeping active is a huge part of self-care. A healthy life is a happy life.

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