Exercise and Mental Health
Posted on 15th May 2019 at 13:10
Stress, anxiety, depression. This unhappy triad can have a huge effect on people's lives whether they’re suffering with one, two or three of these highly common traits. There is, of course, a place for prescription medication and I would encourage anyone who is prone to feeling down or overwhelmed to go and speak to their doctor.
I would also remind people of the beneficial effects of exercise on mental health. Research has shown that physical activity can help mild to moderate depression, anxiety and stress.
What constitutes physical activity
Physical activity includes almost all forms of exercise. It doesn’t matter if it’s brisk walking, swimming, going to the gym, playing a team sport or following a yoga video at home. What does matter is you do something you like and hopefully enjoy, and that you do it regularly. Preferably a few times a week, life permitting. If you do something you like, rather than something you think you should do, you will be much more inclined to carry on and not start resenting the activity.
For instance I always think I need to do more long distance running or jogging. The problem is I grew up playing hockey, cricket and rugby. All stop start, explosive sports. But every few months I think I need to start doing more cardio and go for a jog. After one week I invariably give up. I’m trying to do something that my natural physiology doesn’t like and my conscious finds boring. Instead I do a shot run to the park and then do sprint intervals which I really enjoy and so do more often.
Physiological effects of exercise
Exercise can have positive effects on mental health in a variety of ways. When we’re physically active the body releases endorphins. This chemical interacts with receptors in the brain which reduce your perception of pain and trigger a positive feeling within the body. Neural growth in the brain and the production of new brain cells also results from regular physical activity helping with cognitive function. Inflammation throughout the body, which is often higher in people suffering from stress, can also be reduced by exercise.
The link between the body and mind is well documented these days, and ‘carrying stress in your shoulders’ is a well worn phrase. Exercise can work as a self mobilisation, loosening tight muscles and lubricating joints. When the body starts to feel better, often the mind will follow and vice versa.
Psychological and emotional effects of exercise
Apart from the physiological benefits mentioned above, physical activity can also provide you with a window to break the cycle of negative thoughts and feelings. I often try to add a pinch of mindfulness when exercising - focusing on your feet connecting with the floor, or counting your breathing not only enhances the neural connections between brain and body, but can also blinker us from unhelpful thoughts or feelings.
It’s been shown that an individual's self esteem, self worth and confidence also grows with exercise. When exercising with other people or as part of a team it can help with feeling connected and supported, as well as keeping you motivated. And of course getting outside and in nature is one of the best things anyone can do to promote mental well being.
There are many positive reasons to be physically active whether you’re doing it for your mental or physical health doesn’t really matter, so long as you are doing it. After all movement is life, life is movement so embrace it.
Osteopath and Manta CEO
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