Mental health and exercise

Mental health and exercise link gathers pace

By Rachel O'Rourke

The hangover from the London Olympics and Paralympics has truly set-in. One day we’re jumping for joy for our proud British athletes, draping  themselves un reams of Gold, Silver and Bronze; the next, it’s all over, but it has left it’s mark and a legacy worth celebrating.

To say that Britain has caught the sporting buzz is a whopping great understatement.  The Guardian’s health and wellbeing columnist Sam Murphy was so inspired, she urged the Department of Health to take advantage of the hype, and quickly capitalise on “the current wave of enthusiasm” for physical activity and encourage people to exercise more.

Besides, exercise has been proven to be good for the body - as well as the mind. So why aren’t we all getting involved with sport? How much can sport really help the mental illness stigma? And how fruitful can exercise really be on aiding better mental health?

Please see our fitness section for more on exercise and mental health

Olympic dreams

Olympic cycling hero Chris Hoy would say that exercise is extremely beneficial to spurring good mental health. In July he proclaimed success in backing the Get Active scheme; a charitable programme by The Scottish Association for Mental Health, launched specifically to improve mental health through exercise.

According to the BBC, more than 600 people took part including “hundreds” of people with a mental illness. Independent analysts recorded the participant’s results and concluded that 91% of them felt happier and 81% felt an increase in their confidence after partaking in a full day of sport.

Sports is not just great for your physicality, but it has been known to give mental health service users a positive, healthy, world away from their condition; people often regain confidence and raise their self-esteem by being involved in a sports team or through exercising regularly.

But is it for everyone?  

Please see our guide on getting the most mental health benefit from exercise

Exercise for mental health with caution

“I have seen a growing body of evidence over the last few years to support the thinking that exercise does improve mood,” says Jessica Sinclair, a psychotherapist at London’s Cavendish Psychotherapy practice.

“Exercise releases endorphins into the body and increases the concentration of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which are good for stress improvement and managing low moods.”

Despite the clear advantages, Sinclair warns that the promotion of exercise as a means of improving mental health could have its dangers if not suitably advertised and managed.

“It should be ensured that the message is conveyed responsibly and correctly. Exercise alone may not be enough to address all mental health issues.”

“As a psychotherapist, I would not ‘prescribe’ exercise to clients seeking treatment for a mental illness. Rather, we would explore the clients’ thoughts and feelings towards exercise, so that they are able to make a decision themselves as to whether they feel it would help. It is down to the individual to decide. It is not just the mental health of people that needs to be considered when encouraging more exercise; it should be ensured that a person is physically well enough too.”

So maybe it’s not necessary for the whole of the UK to reach for the pedal pushers just yet. But we can still revel in the comfort that the subject of mental illness in sport is gathering great momentum.

A relay of support

A poll conducted by mental health charity Mind asked 2,000 people a series of questions related to mental health and sports. It showed that there still exists a negative attitude towards people with mental illness, with 12% of respondents believing that sportsmen and women with a mental health problem should not be allowed to compete.

However, 58% agreed that only through hearing elite athletes speak about their mental illness will others be encouraged to seek help too. 

Spurred greatly by this - and by cases such as cricket’s Freddie Flintoff, boxing’s Ricky Hatton and rugby’s own Jonny Wilkinson, whom have all openly discussed having mental health issues despite being at the top of their game - world renowned rugby team the London Wasps has partnered with the charity to eradicate the stigma in sport.

Mind Chief Executive Paul Farmer said: “Mental health has never been higher on the agenda for professional sport. It is clear that hearing sportsmen and women being so open about mental health is a positive development.”

Inspiring a generation

With sports clubs set to experience a boost in membership following the London Olympics and through the awareness being built around sports’effect an individual’s mental capability, it is important doors are open to people of all ages and abilities.

After all, it’s not just the young that need to stay fit and healthy in body and mind. A recent study for the Alzheimers Association found that resistance training is emerging as a “valuable exercise” for older adults in the maintaining of good mental health and functionality.

The report said: “At the Alzheimer's Association International Conference, four studies reported describe the ability of targeted exercise training to promote improved mental functioning and reduced risk…in older adults and those with mild cognitive impairment.”  

The reports, compiled from six-twelve months of controlled clinical trials, also found that there are “beneficial” effects of different types of exercise (resistance training, aerobic training and balance-stretching training) on risk factors which often contribute to cognitive decline, depression and poor sleep patterns.  

The last hurdle

Although there is currently a big push by the Government and charitable associations to highlight the increasing importance of looking at mental health in relation to exercise, precautions still must be taken that appropriate links between the two are made.

Yes, it is proven that sports and exercise have a positive effect on the brain’s chemicals and also on the individual’s sense of wellbeing. In an ideal world, a run each morning or a game of football would be all that is needed to wean people away from their illnesses, but often it is more a case that people with mental health issues require professional help to accompany physical activity.

Sinclaire says: “Professional help, working alongside [exercising], can be effective. With the Olympics in London, it could be a good way to make a connection between the positive effects of exercise and people’s mental health. It won’t necessarily work for everyone as, again, people are individuals, but the connection still could be made in a responsible way.”

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