How can exercise help improve our mental wellbeing?

Exercise is something many of us dread. We fear that early morning gym session. The thought of jogging for more than 10 minutes is terrifying and to couple with this, we must try and eat healthy as well? Why is this the case? I think many of us see exercise or physical activity in general as a chore and not something that is enjoyable which should not be the case at all! Most medical students and even the public already know the positive physical benefits that exercise has, but I think a lot of us ignore or don’t recognise how physical activity can improve our mental health.

Mental health and talking about it has always had some sort of stigma attached to it, especially with males. However, in recent years, people have started paying more attention to it and shedding an increasing amount of light on issues regarding mental health and what we can do to tackle them. Unfortunately, depression and suicide rates have risen in the last decade which has forced us to take it more seriously. Certain professions and fields, such as medicine, have also seen a marked rise in depression and suicide rates which begs the question; what exactly is wrong, and why do we fear opening up about things to do with our mental health?

I believe part of this can be attributed to the society we live in today and our current generation. The demands placed on us today, without undermining what our parents and grandparents have gone through, are ever pressing which has not been helped with the likes of social media. We care so much about appearing to be ok that we fail to face and deal with underlying and deep rooted issues. As a male especially, we are somewhat programmed into putting on a brave face or being the ‘man’ that our current or future families require. Whilst one must learn how to deal with the situations that life throws at us accordingly, this does not mean that we should be afraid of speaking up or seeking help when the going really does get tough. Individuality amongst males and constantly trying to do things on our own accord is also a pressing issue that we must try to get rid of. It is clear to everyone that society is very much changing. Males are no longer required to be the sole bread winners of the family as an increasing number of women are going to university, going to work and doing many of the roles a previous patriarchal society would have deemed not possible. Thus, equity within our society has relieved some of the pressures and allowed us to take a break when needed. During these breaks, I find it vital that we analyse not just our physical health but also our mental health and if we are really ok and not just appearing to be ok.

As mentioned previously, a great way to not only improve our mental health but also prevent it deteriorating, is exercise.

“It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigour”

Marcus Tullius Cicero

The department of health recommends that the average adult should do around 2.5 hours of moderate intensity activity a week, which equates to 30 minutes five times a week. Whether this be a leisurely walk to work instead of taking the train, or taking a trip down to your local gym, it is important that we try and achieve this to reap the potential rewards.

There are several ways that exercise can help our mental wellbeing and here are just a few:

Effects on our mood 

Evidence has shown that physical activity can have a profound positive effect on our mood (Penedo and Dahn, 2005). Researchers in a study found that participants felt more awake, content and even calmer compared to those who were inactive. Kanning and Schlicht (2010). This just goes to show that a quick run may help to lift us up when we’re feeling down in the dumps.

Effects on stress

Stress is something that we all go through on almost a daily basis and is a natural part of human life. To help combat it and to prevent it overwhelming us, we can engage in physical activities to relieve this stress. A study on employed adults showed that very active individuals tend to have lower stress rates compared to those who are less physically active Kouvonen et al (2005)

Effects on depression and anxiety

The fact that physical activity can be an alternative treatment for depression alone signifies its benefits. It can be used as a standalone treatment or in combination with psychological therapy/medication (Department of Health, 2001). Although those that are depressed may struggle to find the motivation to exercise, once conducted, the benefits will only ever be positive.

The stigma attached to mental is slowly but surely being peeled off. Although we live in a fast-paced society with increasing demands, this same society has made reaching out to people and seeking help that much easier. There are numerous websites and numbers that are one google search or a few screen taps away that will enable you to talk to someone who cares about how you are feeling. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to a stranger then please reach out to your family and friends because you’d be surprised how many of them are going through something similar or who will be willing to sit and listen to the struggles you are facing. As well as this, engaging in physical activity and keeping fit are also a couple of other was to preserve your mental wellbeing. You may struggle to find the motivation but the start is always the hardest part. Once you push through that first barrier, the rest become a whole lot easier.

“Your present circumstances don’t determine where you can go, they merely determine where you start”

Nido Qubein

Written by Allan Nathans

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References:

Penedo, F.J. & Dahn, J.R. (2005). Exercise and well-being: a review of mental and physical health benefits associated with physical activity. Current Opinion in Psychiatry. 18 (2), 189–193.

Kanning, M. & Schlicht, W. (2010). Be Active and Become Happy: An Ecological Momentary Assessment of Physical Activity and Mood. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 32 (2), 253–261

Department of Health (2010). Healthy Lives, Healthy People: Our strategy for public health in England. London: The Stationery Office. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/216096/dh_127424.pdf [Accessed on 04/11/15].

Kouvonen, A., Kivimaki, M., Elovainio, M., Virtanen, M., Linna, A. & Vehtera, J. (2005). Job strain and leisure-time physical activity in female and male public sector employees. Preventative Medicine, 41 (2), 532–539.

Department of Health (2001). “Exercise Referral Systems: A National Quality Assurance Framework.” Available at: http://bit.ly/1N31ONs [Accessed on 04/11/15].

 

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