Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise has several physical health benefits such as a lower resting heart rate, increased metabolic rate and an increase in bone density. Exercise is also beneficial to an individual’s mental health. For some people simply looking healthier is enough. Regular exercise can help people who live with Anxiety, Bipolar Disorder, Depression and even ADHD. This is because a properly devised exercise programme provides structure and a sense of achievement, which can lead to reduced stress levels and an improved sense of well-being. Regular exercise also helps people to sleep better, feel more energetic and in some cases be a better treatment then medication.

Before I continue I want to make it clear that I am not suggesting that people stop taking their medication and replace it with exercise, I am simply explaining how exercise can help people live with their mental illness.

Exercise and Depression:

Studies into the effects of exercise for people with mild depression have found that it can be as effective as some medication, without any of the negative side effects. Studies have also found that following a properly devised exercise programme can also reduce the chances of an individual relapsing. There are several reasons for exercise being a powerful anti-depressant, such as changes in brain structure because of neural growth, the release of powerful feel good hormones such as Serotonin and Dopamine as well as acting as a distraction for the individual. An individual who trains alone can focus on the workout, where as an individual who has a training partner has somebody to keep them motivated.

Exercise and Anxiety:

Exercise can fight anxiety by relieving stress and tension, which in turn can reduce the chances of an individual having a panic attack. Exercise can increase both physical and mental energy and promotes the release of endorphins such as Serotonin and Dopamine.

Exercise and Stress:

Exercise such as Pilates and Yoga are fantastic for stress release. Both forms of exercise promote rhythmic breathing, allowing the individual to focus. This helps the body to relax. Some of the signs and symptoms a stressed individual may show include neck pain, a pounding pulse, muscle cramps and frequent urination. This could lead to increased stress for the individual. By taking part in a structured exercise plan the muscles can relax, relieving tension in the body. The body reacts to how the mind is feeling, therefore a relaxed mind leads to a relaxed body.

Exercise and ADHD:

To some people ADHD is simply an annoying child who doesn’t listen. It is in fact a serious condition which if left untreated can lead to serious problems in life for the individual. People who have ADHD can find it difficult to concentrate, lack motivation for anything and have issues with their mood as well as have excess energy. I went to University with twins who both had ADHD. To help them with this their Mum had them join the local rugby team which they said had a huge benefit for them. One of the reasons for this was the structure the training gave them as well as the fact that they had to think about the entire team.

Exercise and PTSD:

Research into PTSD has found that exercise helps by causing the individual to really focus on how their body reacts to exercise. Focussing on how the body reacts to exercise has been shown to help the nervous system to become unstuck and leave the immobilizing stress response associated with PTSD. Outdoor activities like hiking, sailing, mountain biking, rock climbing, Whitewater rafting, and skiing (downhill and cross-country) have also been shown to reduce the symptoms of PTSD.

Other mental and emotional benefits of exercise:

Improved memory and thinking. The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.
Higher self-esteem. Regular activity is an investment in your mind, body, and soul. When it becomes habit, it can foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You’ll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement.
Better sleep. Even short bursts of exercise in the morning or afternoon can help regulate your sleep patterns. If you prefer to exercise at night, relaxing exercises such as yoga or gentle stretching can help promote sleep.
Increased energy. Increasing your heart rate several times a week will give you more get-up-and-go. Start off with just a few minutes of exercise a day and increase your workout as you feel more energized.
Stronger resilience. When faced with mental or emotional challenges in life, exercise can help you cope in a healthy way, instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviours that ultimately only make your symptoms worse. Regular exercise can also help boost your immune system and reduce the impact of stress.

How much exercise should you perform?

Current government guidelines for an adult is 150 minutes of moderate physical activity a week. This might sound like a lot, however spread over five days that works out at thirty minutes each session. Moderate physical activity is dependent of the current fitness level of the individual, and simply needs the individual to feel out of breath at the end of the session.

Useful links:

Physical Activity and Mental Health – Details how being active can help depression and other mental health issues. (Royal College of Psychiatrists)

The Exercise Effect – Discusses the mental health benefits of exercise and why it should be used more frequently in mental health treatment. (American Psychological Association)

Exercising to Relax – How physical activity and autoregulation exercises can help reduce stress. (Harvard Medical School)

Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms – How to relieve symptoms with exercise, including tips to help you get started and stay motivated. (Mayo Clinic)

For Depression, Prescribing Exercise Before Medication – Article about how aerobic activity has shown to be an effective treatment for many forms of depression. (The Atlantic)

Guide to Physical Activity – Provides many examples and ideas of physical activity that you might not have considered exercise. (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)

Fitness Basics – A comprehensive guide to fitness including overcoming barriers, creative ways to exercise, types of exercise and measuring your heart rate. (Mayo Clinic)

Tips to Help You Get Active – A step-by-step guide to getting active, breaking down how to overcome barriers and practical tips on getting started. (National Institutes of Health)

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