The importance of exercise for mental health

Stress, tiredness, burnout and anxiety are all issues I see a lot. The number one reason is that people don’t take good care of themselves. If this is something you struggle with, you need to focus on self-care before you can even start to think about making any significant changes in your life.

You also need to keep a handle on this moving forwards; without addressing the basics – by this, I mean exercise, sleep and nutrition.

Remember, this is not self-indulgence. When you are running on empty, no one is getting the best of you and there will be physical, mental, emotional and spiritual consequences. Conversely, when we take care of ourselves, we are able to give more to everyone else.

The importance of sleep

A full night’s sleep is absolutely vital if you want to stay motivated and make changes in your life. One of the first things I do with my clients is ask how tired they are feeling and how much sleep they are getting. Nearly all of them know they’re not getting enough and, because they don’t realize the impact of this, they don’t prioritize it.

In the best-selling book Why We Sleep, scientist Matthew Walker highlights just how detrimental sleep deprivation can be, but also how getting more sleep can have an immediate, positive effect. It may be obvious to state that a lack of sleep makes you tired, but crucially, when you are tired you are less motivated.

When you experience fatigue you are likely to find yourself doing the bare minimum – anything bigger or more challenging is shunted to the sidelines for another day (if that day ever comes).

A clear head: Sleep deprivation negatively affects the part of your brain responsible for memory, learning and decision-making (the prefrontal cortex or PFC). When we are tired ,the PFC becomes ‘foggy’, and we find it much harder to learn and retain new information, and to make the best decisions moving forward – all of which are essential elements for effecting change and reaching goals. For that we need a clear head.

Motivation: When we are not getting enough sleep we often become stressed, which can cause our motivation levels and general mood to drop. This negativity can also affect those around us – the people who are often essential to helping or supporting us achieve our work or life goals.

The importance of nutrition

What you eat has a significant impact on your motivation and ability to make changes in your life. According to the World Health Organization, you can actually boost your motivation and overall brain productivity by up to 20 per cent just by eating the right foods.

Omega-3 fatty acids play a vital role. They are a key component of the myelin sheath – the protective layer that forms around any new neural pathway developed within the brain. So when you are forming any new behaviour or mindset Omega-3 will help to strengthen the corresponding neural pathway.

Refined carbs and sugar have a negative effect on focus, attention and memory, and have even been linked to depression. Keep these foods to a minimum where possible.

The importance of exercise

When you take regular exercise, (either weights or cardio), three key neurotransmitters are released into your brain. These have a positive effect on your brain and body, as well as on your ability to stay positive and keep motivated.

GABA: The first of these is gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). This is a natural tranquillizer and has a calming effect. It can be particularly beneficial if you suffer from stress, or if you’re going through a particularly stressful period in your life.

Serotonin: This is the key ingredient of many anti-depressants. Exercise releases serotonin in the brain and will stop you from feeling low.

Dopamine: This is the real feel-good hormone that we’re often seeking when we eat chocolate, sugar or carbs.

So how do these neurotransmitters help you when changing aspects of your life?

The action of these three key brain chemicals, as well as the physical effects of sleep, good food and exercise on your body, will actually make you feel differently about yourself and what you can achieve, and you will therefore think differently about what is possible. Your self-esteem will improve, your stress and anxiety levels will fall, and you will feel calmer and more confident. As a consequence, you will be much better able to set targets, keep to them, and achieve your goals.



Your sleep schedule can be really difficult to change but this is just because your body is used to the time you currently go to bed; it will adjust to a new, earlier one – it may just take a little while. Try and do the following things: For the next three weeks create a new sleep schedule and go to bed earlier than you have been (make sure it is the same time every night). Set your alarm for the same time every morning (it helps to do the same at weekends, but do let yourself have a lie-in if you need to).


Cut down on refined carbs and sugars. Start enjoying my top five booster foods. Take an omega-3 supplement.


Start small. Don’t go out and expect to do 30 minutes or an hour straight away. Build up gradually and that way you will sustain the habit. Mix it up. If you get bored easily vary what you do. Find an exercise buddy if being accountable to someone else helps you. Find a particular class you like, or do your exercise at the same time every day, if you respond well to routine. Whatever you do, by building up to just 30 minutes of cardio every other day, you are consciously and actively taking a step to change your life, and it will have other positive effects.

About The Author:

This is an extract from chapter 5 of “Change your life in five“, from the award-winning leadership and life coach Sue Belton.

For a limited time, you can get your free copy of this best selling book that can change your life for just the price of the P+P (RRP £14.99) here.

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