The benefits of physical activity

Natasha Jones, consultant in sport and exercise medicine at Oxford University Hospitals, considers the benefits of exercise.

Have you ever regretted going for a walk, going to the gym or going for a run? It’s a strange reality that something that can sometimes seem so hard to do is never a source of regret when you have actually done it.

Everybody knows physical activity is a good thing. Indeed, evidence tells us that physical activity, or just moving more, is one of the best buys in healthcare. This is true for almost all health conditions and there are very few contraindications to giving this advice. Depression, anxiety and stress have all been shown to be improved by physical activity. Sleep, cognitive function and self-esteem have also been shown to be improved. The Moving Medicine online resource has more detailed literature reviews as well as handy guides on how to have effective conversations with people about physical activity.

However …

One of the hardest things we will all have found when talking to patients, is the difficulty of motivation. This is just as true for us as health professionals as it is for others. When we are feeling stressed, tired, downtrodden, burnt out or even depressed, most of us don’t naturally reach for our trainers. But why not? The evidence tells us that this is exactly what we should be doing.

I think it’s because of societal conditioning. When we feel rough, we protect ourselves. We wrap ourselves up warm and sit miserably looking at our screens, often reading unhelpful emails which make us feel worse. This is our default position.

Over the past 30 years of medicine and motherhood, I have tried and usually managed to stay motivated to exercise even during the toughest times. This has not been easy, but it is something I am glad to be able to say. So what is it that gets me going when getting going is the last thing I feel like?

  • Don’t set the bar too high

Someone once said that he got out for a run every day by promising himself the easiest run he had ever had. I think this is a great tip. Because once you get out there, you almost always realise that your body wants to go much more than you think it might.

  • Do something you enjoy

I am quite goal orientated and find having a target to aim for is helpful. But it doesn’t really matter what you do, what matters is that you enjoy it.

  • Exercise together … or alone

The evidence tells us that exercising with others is particularly good for mental health. But when I am at my lowest ebb, I sometimes prefer to be alone when I exercise. The solitude and quiet helps me think things through and rationalise things.

  • Choose your sport

I always make sure there is an easy option. Getting to a class, a club session or a gym can sometimes just be too much. I make sure that whatever the weather or time of day, there is something I can do that’s quick, easy and doesn’t involve any input from anybody else.

  • Get support

Having the support of people around us is really helpful. If we feel guilty about exercising because of the impact it has on others, that can be the biggest barrier. After 25 years of marriage, it can often be my husband or children who suggest I might like to go for a run … When people see the positive impact on you, they will encourage you, rather than put up barriers.

In summary, being physically active has had a massive positive influence on my life and my career. Give it a go – you won’t regret it!

Find out more

The RCP’s Mental health and wellbeing resource aims to support physicians to stay well and seek help when needed by opening up the conversation about mental health issues and their impact.