Fit body, fit mind
By Abi Tuddenham
The World Health Organization predicts that depression will be the second most common cause of disability worldwide by 2020. At least 1 in 6 people in the UK suffers some sort of mental health problem at any one time, which results in nearly 25% of all visits to the doctor or pharmacist for help. Anxiety and depression are on the rise and nearly 1 in 3 adults reports fatigue and difficulty sleeping. Is popping pills the only way to treat depression and other mental health disorders, or is there a more natural solution?
Physical activity – in the form of exercise, dancing, walking the dog, playing team sports, whatever you choose – can be effective in both preventing and treating mental health issues. Keeping physically active does not only ensure a workout for our bodies, it also does wonders for our minds!
When we exercise
When we exercise, biochemical effects take place within the body. Endorphins (‘feel good’ chemicals) are released when our bodies are active and our serotonin levels (linked to sleep and memory) also increase. Physically, blood flow to the brain is increased and muscle tension is reduced. Psychosocially, exercise improves our body image and confidence, as well as our sense of achievement and being in control.
Feeling mentally better is not actually linked with your individual level of physical fitness, it is more to do with just being physically active: moving around and getting our bodies working. You don’t need to be a gym bunny to benefit mentally from exercise, you just need to get moving!
Exercise can help prevent depression
Physical activity can help to reduce the risk of depression, though it is not yet clear the optimal amount of exercise required in order to achieve this. Research has shown that a history of being inactive over many years is associated with subsequent depression. Physical activity does not need to mean signing up for punishing classes at your local gym or committing to an hour’s workout everyday – if you have led a sedentary lifestyle, perhaps start walking sometimes when you would usually drive the car, or put on your favourite CD and dance in your front room to get moving.
Exercise can help treat depression
Physical activity has been shown to reduce the symptoms of people diagnosed as being severely, moderately or mildly depressed. Four separate research studies have shown that physical activity is at least as effective as psychotherapy in treating the symptoms of depression. Two studies have shown physical activity to be as successful as medication at treating depression. One of these studies showed that, after a sixteen-week period, exercise had an equal effect on depression as a standard, prescribed antidepressant. Furthermore, a follow-up study six months later showed that those who had suffered depression but kept exercising were more likely to recover than those taking medication alone.
The benefits of exercise over medication alone are that the effects are immediate – after even the first session, your body’s serotonin and endorphin levels will be raised, giving you an immediate ’feel good’ boost. Compare this to the slow build-up required for many antidepressants which require you to take them for two weeks or longer before your body starts to respond. In addition, exercise does not carry the negative side effects that may accompany antidepressants and other medication – aside from aching muscles the next day, perhaps!
Exercise can help with other mental health disorders
Physical activity also offers benefits for those suffering anxiety symptoms, phobias, panic attacks and stress disorders. Symptoms of anxiety, such as increased resting heart rate and blood pressure and tense muscles, are reduced as a result of exercise. The best sort of exercise to ease symptoms of anxiety is aerobic (eg: running, swimming, cycling) and the most reduction in symptoms can be experienced over a period of at least 3-4 months. Some early research indicates that after exercising, those suffering anxiety report a reduction in their symptoms lasting for 4-6 hours. It can also have a positive effect on the psychological health of schizophrenics, helping to ease anxiety and depression and enabling them to cope with other symptoms such as hallucinations.
Exercise can help us feel better
Surveys show that people who have a physically active lifestyle – regardless of age, wealth or health status – feel happier and more satisfied with life. Those who exercise report higher levels across five key areas: wellbeing, mood and emotions, satisfaction with life and quality of life. Even a single session of physical exercise can result in improved mood and physical health! Those who exercise frequently say that feeling better in themselves actually motivates them to continue exercising – positive outcomes like enjoyment and a sense of achievement help with long-term motivation.
Exercise can help us feel better about ourselves
Exercise can lead to an increase in feelings of self-worth and self-esteem: in other words, feeling good about ourselves. Exercise can bring positive changes in the way people see themselves (their self-perception). This has been experienced across all age groups, including children. Those with more active lifestyles report feelings of general physical self-worth (liking themselves in their own bodies) as well as in specific areas, eg: improved body image, perceived physical fitness and bodily strength. Those who initially have low self-esteem can benefit the most from physical exercise and have the potential to experience the most change in the way they felt about themselves.
A study published last year revealed that even just five minutes spent exercising in a green environment (such as a park) can improve mood and self-esteem – being alongside water, like a pond, gives even better results. Those with mental health problems showed the most improvement in self-esteem after exercising in nature.
Exercise can help us feel less stressed
Those who do some form of physical exercise report fewer symptoms of anxiety or emotional distress than those who don’t. Physical activity has beneficial effects on anxiety, with the most effects seen in unfit people with high levels of anxiety. So if you are a very anxious person who does not currently exercise – you have the most to gain!
Exercise can help us to sleep
Not only does physical activity help us to sleep, it helps us to fall asleep more quickly, sleep longer and sleep more deeply than those who don’t exercise. The risk of sleep disorders is significantly lower for both men and women who exercise at least once a week, even just walking at a regular pace for more than half a mile a day. Women and those who are less fit can benefit most by exercising to increase deep sleep, particularly by doing some form of aerobic exercise (eg: walking, jogging, tennis or swimming). Exercise may also be a useful additional treatment for those suffering obstructive sleep apnoea syndrome.
How do I get these benefits?
Research suggests that you can achieve the most mental health benefits from moderate intensity activity which lasts between 20 minutes and an hour at a time. If you cannot manage this, or need to build up to this level of exercise, short bouts (10-15 minutes) of walking have also brought about positive changes in mood.
The most consistently effective form of exercise to achieve mental wellbeing is rhythmic and aerobic – eg: brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming or dancing. Resistance exercise, such as weight lifting, has fast effects on how the body feels and behaves so may benefit those seeking to improve low self-esteem. Group sports are also likely to bring social and mood benefits.
Whatever form of exercise you choose, make sure it is something you enjoy and feel you can stick at. Here’s to more active bodies and healthier minds!
To ease depression:
Exercise frequently, several days a week if you can manage it (build up to this gradually if you have not been exercising or feel daunted by the prospect), continue exercising for at least 2-3 months to see the most improvement in your symptoms of depression. The effects can take place from the first session of exercise.
To ease anxiety:
Take part in aerobic exercise and continue exercising for at least 3-4 months to see the most improvement in your anxiety levels
To ease low mood or self-esteem:
exercise in a green environment, for example a park or garden – even a short bout of exercise can bring improvements. If you can be near water too, you may benefit even further.
To ease insomnia or restless sleep:
Take part in aerobic exercise at least once a week and do not exercise close to bedtime.
Disclaimer:If you are suffering any sort of health issue, please discuss it with your GP before embarking on a fitness regime. When starting a new fitness programme, please make sure you exercise safely, with the proper clothing/equipment, if necessary, to avoid accident or injury.
It is also important that you do not attempt to come off any antidepressant or other prescribed medication without the help and support of your doctor. Just as it takes time for some medication to take effect in the body, stopping medication suddenly can produce unwanted effects in the body – your GP can help you to reduce your medication slowly in order to avoid unpleasant effects.
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