Stephen Hughes: Exercise is important for mental health

Being physically active builds confidence and self-esteem. Picture: PABeing physically active builds confidence and self-esteem. Picture: PA
Being physically active builds confidence and self-esteem. Picture: PA
It's been inspiring to see so many positive news ­stories around Mental Health Awareness Week; tackling the stigma around mental health and encouraging people to understand that it's OK not to feel OK.

The reality is we all have mental health and there may be times when we have good and less good mental health. In fact, it’s estimated that one in four Scots experience a ­mental health condition in any one year.

One of the ways to prevent and ­manage mental health problems is to be active.

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Regular physical activity has been proven to have a positive effect on mental health and wellbeing. For mild depression, physical activity can be as good as antidepressants or ­psychological treatments; for ­example, cognitive behaviour ­therapy.

Whether it’s a walk to the park, a round of golf or a high intensity gym workout, being physically active helps build confidence and self-esteem. It makes you feel good because it gets the endorphins going and decreases the stress hormones such as cortisol. It can be fun and sociable too.

Being active means different things to different people and it doesn’t have to be about going to the gym. The key is finding something you enjoy and incorporating it into your life.

It’s not always easy to take those first few steps towards a more active ­lifestyle. We are often faced with many barriers: finding the time, ­having the willpower or the confidence to just get started.

As a ­charity, Edinburgh Leisure runs an Active Communities ­programme that gives a helping hand to those who need a little extra support to get active.

Healthy Active Minds is one such project that uses physical activity to improve the lives of people affected by depression, stress or anxiety.

The project provides people with access to a specialist instructor who ­regularly meets with participants to understand what their interests are and develops a physical activity plan tailored to individual needs.

Participants can get involved in a wide range of subsidised activities at Edinburgh Leisure including ­swimming, walking, fitness classes, golf and climbing. And it works.

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Each month Healthy Active Minds: receives 100 new referrals, delivers 150 one-to-one consultations, ­and supports 480 people to get active and stay active around three times a week.

An impressive 85 per cent of participants on the project report improved mental wellbeing as a result. As Gary, 52, describes: “Being active has ­lowered my anxiety levels and lifted my spirits.

“Meeting new ­people no longer scares me and I actually look forward to social interaction – what a turnaround.”

There are so many positive stories from participants on the Healthy Active Minds programme – all of them ably demonstrate the positive impact physical activity has on ­mental health.

Encouraging and supporting ­people to be active and healthy is at the heart of everything we do at ­Edinburgh Leisure.

If you feel you (or perhaps someone you know) would benefit from being more active, why not explore taking up a new hobby or start a healthy new habit that involves moving more? And remember we are here to help.

If you would like any further information about Healthy Active Minds contact Edinburgh Leisure at

Stephen Hughes is Healthy Active Minds Development Officer at Edinburgh Leisure.