How exercise can improve your mental wellbeing

Public Health Wales have recognised the benefits to incorporating exercise into your life by introducing their National Exercise Referral Scheme. The scheme is targeted at those who are vulnerable to longterm illnesses, including people with mental health issues.

The Mental Health Foundation says that low intensity aerobic exercise for 30-35 minutes, three to five times a week was best for increasing positive moods in terms of things such as enthusiasm and alertness. According to the Mental Health Foundation, physical exercise can help with mood, stress, self-esteem, dementia and many more elements of your mental health too.

The NHS expands on this theory saying: “Some scientists think that being active can improve wellbeing because it brings about a greater sense of self-esteem, self-control and the ability to rise to a challenge.”

27-year-old Lauren James from Newport was diagnosed with depression in 2012 following an assault from her partner at the time. This lead to her being in a women’s refuge with her three young children. Whilst her partner at the time was only physically abusive once, Lauren said he was financially and mentally abusive throughout their relationship. Understandably, Lauren found living in a women’s refuge difficult.

She said: “My youngest child was one at the time, so it could have been postnatal depression, exacerbated by domestic violence. I found life in the refuge hard and was using alcohol as a crutch. My GP put me on fluoxetine and made a referral to the National Exercise Referral Scheme (NERS) at the same time.”

“Allowing training to help me feel powerful helps to keep my anxiety at bay; when I’m feeling strong and in control, my anxiety doesn’t have a place in my life.”

The National Exercise Referral Scheme​ is a project set up by Public Health Wales that targets individuals who are 16 or over and at risk of developing a chronic (long-lasting) disease. The scheme is an evidence-based health intervention incorporating physical activity and behavioural change techniques to support referred clients to make lifestyle changes to improve their health and wellbeing.

“NERS was a free, limited membership to my local gym” explained Lauren. “I had access to low impact exercise classes and could use the gym at certain times when the NERS instructors were there. I went two to three times a week and not long after joining, a friend of mine was referred to the same scheme for joint problems. I really liked the scheme anyway, but having someone I knew there was a big help.”

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“I don’t really go to the gym anymore but I’m still more active than I was before going on the anti-depressants,” said Lauren. “I’ve stayed off them ever since using a combination of exercise and mindfulness. Every week I write down at least three things that have made me smile the week before, reframe a challenging event or moment by reflecting on it after time has passed and write what I’m looking forward to in the week ahead. I do a weekly Facebook Live to help others do this too. I feel better now than I ever have.”

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists the link between physical exercise and improved mental health could be down to the fact exercise releases chemicals in the brain such as dopamine (linked with reward and pleasure sensors in the brain) and serotonin (a chemical linked to your mood). Exercise also reduces harmful chemicals in the brain that are caused by stress – a common factor of many mental health issues. They also go on to add that exercise can be as good as antidepressants and behavioural therapy for mild depression.

Jeannie Wyatt-Williams, National Exercise Referral Scheme manager for Wales, also argues that there is strong evidence to prove that undertaking physical activity can improve someones mental wellbeing and that there has been a lot of success following NERS.

“The original NERS evaluation was looking specifically the effects of supervised activity for referrals with a mild/moderate mental health condition,” said Jeannie. “The results were impressive in showing an improvement in their general health and wellbeing in particular for women.

“There is  still a lot of stigma attached to mental health for men which doesn’t allow them to open up and talk. In many instances accept the help that is offered. The NERS study evidenced this in that far more women than men took up the opportunity of joining the programme.”

Another person who found their mental health hugely benefited following her love of the gym was 23-year-old Elena Sanderson from Stockport. Elena’s anxiety started two years ago when she began to notice she was overthinking a lot of things causing her to have panic attacks.

“I could never be present”, said Elena. “I was either worrying about the future or longing for the past. I would ruin experiences for myself: for example when I visited a friend in London not long ago and I was constantly thinking about when I could get home, back to my home comforts, back to my own bed, back to where I was ‘safe’ in my routine.”


“The biggest things I worry about the future are change and uncertainty,” explained Elena. “I don’t cope well with change, I will always expect the worse from a situation and can’t see how change can be positive (even though it usually is). I like my routine, I like my home comforts, so change for me is just disruptive and will make my anxiety flare up. It’s a fear of not being in control.”

Initially starting training at the gym because of her love of keeping fit, Elena began to notice her mental health deteriorated when she wasn’t training as often: “When I’m not training regularly I feel out of control, I feel anxious and that I’m not in control of my time or my body. Training allows me to get that control back. I like knowing that I’m doing something positive for my mind and body.

“I feel good after a session, and I particularly feeling amazing if I achieve a new personal best – I tell myself I am good enough and that ‘I got this’. Allowing training to help me feel powerful helps to keep my anxiety at bay; when I’m feeling strong and in control, my anxiety doesn’t have a place in my life.”

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