Smart moves: Exercise for improved mental wellbeing
Man doing hand stand exercise

Exercise your brain and train for mental health with these 10 easy steps to a sharper, happier mind

It’s now common knowledge that physical exercise can have a significant impact on our brains as well as our brawn, resulting in improved mental health as well as physical. There’s also a growing body of research that supports medical professionals who prescribe physical exercise as the number one way to combat a range of mental health issues, including some forms of depression.

Alongside the evidence that exercise can improve our mental wellbeing is a wealth of studies that highlight how physical movement – from long walks to lifting weights – can train our brains and make us smarter, too. Scott Ashley, personal trainer and fitness expert at ITV’s Good Morning Britain, has a keen interest in this area, with personal experience of depression. Here he reveals the really smart moves you can make to improve your mood and boost your brainpower as well as workout your body.

Picture of a young athletic man resting after training


Two studies – from the University of Minnesota and the University of Eastern Finland – are among those that highlight how mental wellbeing and even cognitive function and quick-thinking all benefit from working out. But key to reaping the rewards, according to Ashley, is motivation. ‘Our sedentary lives encourage an ambivalence towards exercise. To combat this, you need to be goal-setting and have something to work towards. Just by creating purpose and focus you start engaging both the brain and body.’

Ashley says begin with incremental goals – aim to complete, say, three gym sessions or a 5K run each week– with longer-term goals of competing in a half-marathon some months off or losing a specific amount of weight. ‘Goals provide the spur for a physical and mental uplift.’


‘Aim to exercise in the morning to get your mind in better shape, too,’ says Ashley. ‘I’ve found that meeting a Monday morning face-on with a workout gets the week off to the best possible start. You attack what for many can be the most depressing part of the week with exercise, and that can be the best medicine to counter it.’ Research from the University of Illinois also shows that exercising in the morning – before work – not only spikes brain activity, but also better prepares a person for mental stress while increasing their ability to retain new information.


‘Training in the great outdoors is the most natural thing in the world,’ says Ashley. Research published in the Environmental Science And Technology Journal shows that ‘green’ exercise is especially effective at combating stress. ‘Maybe it’s our primitive instinct that means we’re more inclined to run faster and exercise for longer when we’re out in the open air,’ suggests Ashley. ‘Studies also show that the exposure to natural sunlight adds to the release of hormones in the body – and encourages the body’s own production of mood-boosting vitamin D.’


High-intensity exercise is essential to creating that flush of feel-good chemicals you need to attain that mental boost from a physical training session,’ says Ashley. ‘Research shows that the controlled spike in the heart rate as you shift up a gear when running or cycling at a higher intensity encourages the release of mood-improving hormones – the overall effect is a plus for your mental health as well as your cardiovascular fitness.’


‘The most common theme I notice in the feedback I get from training clients is: “I feel so good, why didn’t I do this sooner”,’ says Ashley. ‘The smartest exercise move you can make is to schedule in the time to do it. Give gym session appointments the same priority you do as work ones – in fact, even greater priority if your work is causing you stress, since that exercise will save you from it. Get your family engaged and exercising with you too, and the demands on your time to be both fit and family orientated are suddenly halved.’


Developing a decent stride pattern as you pound the pavements regularly will do more than keep your heart ticking over. Research published in the Journal Of Physiology also reveals how running helps brain cells continue to form. In comparison tests with strength training, interval and not exercising at all, running was shown to be the best exercise for promoting neurogenesis – the growth and development of new tissue – in the brain.

More like this

This move is king when it comes to core. Learn perfect form to reap maximum benefits and avoid injury.

Athlete exercising push-ups in a gym.

The bounce back begins. There’s no doubt that the Covid-19 crisis curtailed fitness routines for millions, as competitions were cancelled, training programmes postponed and events put on […]