We’ve all heard about the benefits exercise can have on our physical health, such as weight loss, reducing the risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes (to name a few), but what about the effects on our mental health? With as many as 1 in 4 of us expected to suffer from a mental health problem at some time in our lives, physical activity must play an important part in maintaining and improving not only our physical health but our psychological well-being too. But what impact does exercise have on our mental health? What benefits does being active have in preventing (or managing) mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety? In this post we’ll look at the relative benefits activity has on our physical and psychological health as well as how you can best look after your mental well-being through exercise.
How much exercise should I be doing?
Current UK guidelines recommend that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity (something that gets you feeling warmer and breathing faster) per week. An example of this would be taking a brisk, 30-minute walk five times a week. Alternatively, a minimum of 75 minutes of vigorous activity (the sweaty, heart-racing type) found in sports such as running, swimming and football is recommended. Alongside this guidance, adults should aim to be active on a daily basis, include strengthening sessions (weight or resistance-based training) at least twice weekly and limit the time spent sitting down as much as possible. The intensity at which you train should be relative to your fitness level: for someone who does very little activity, a brisk walk may provide enough moderate to vigorous activity to gain the benefits, whereas an active person may need to up the ante in order to meet the right intensity for their workout. Our minds, bodies, health and fitness levels are individual to us, so remember to gauge your activity level based on your lifestyle and capabilities. Remember: every journey starts with the first step.
What are the physical benefits of exercise?
Be it in the news or from your Doctor, you’ve probably heard that physical activity has many positive effects on our physical health, be it reducing our risk of heart disease/stroke, improving our metabolism and of course weight loss. Until recently, it was widely believed that the majority of these health benefits from physical activity came as a result of losing weight and the subsequent reduction in body mass index (BMI) and body fat percentage. However, recent evidence has shown that this is not the case. Whilst weight loss does contribute to physical well-being, the greatest benefit of physical activity is actually from the anti-inflammatory effect it has on the body. Through regular exercise, we can minimise the degree of inflammation occurring in our body, which in turn reduces the risk of developing conditions that are associated with long-term inflammation including cancer, heart disease, diabetes and even dementia.
Visceral fat, which is the fat we store around our internal organs, releases certain chemicals which cause inflammation. As a consequence, the more we have of it the greater the inflammation in our body. Regular exercise, therefore, reduces our visceral fat and its harmful inflammatory effects, making us less likely to develop long-term health complications as a result.
In essence, being physically active will not just help you to manage your weight but may also prevent you from developing several serious, long-term health conditions. Trust me: exercise and your heart, lungs, brain, muscles, joints, immune system, metabolism (the list goes on...) will thank you for it!
What effect does being physical inactive have on the body?
You may already be aware that being physically inactive contributes to weight gain, reduced metabolism and a loss of muscle mass. A lack of daily activity means it’s harder to achieve a regular calorie deficit (where we burn off more calories than we take in) which in turn can lead to weight gain or at best weight maintenance (but not loss).
What you may not know is that being sedentary – particularly through prolonged periods of sitting - triggers the release of harmful chemicals known as ‘free radicals’ within our cells. Without physical activity, these chemicals build up within the cells and can cause inflammation. Ultimately, this mixture of harmful chemicals and inflammation can lead to early cell death and a need for new cells to be produced. In other words, being inactive increases our cell turnover and therefore speeds up the ageing process. And if that’s not incentive enough, research has proven physical inactivity to be a greater health risk than obesity itself and is accountable for more deaths each year than smoking. Now who’d have thought chairs and desks could be as dangerous (if not more so) to our health than smoking cigarettes...?
So what effect does physical activity have on mental health?
We all know that if we can manage to motivate ourselves to go to the gym, or for a walk or run, that we usually (if not always) feel better afterwards. Be it the sense of achievement, the post-exercise endorphin release or simply the fact that you got up and moved despite not feeling like it, we can all remember a time that we’ve felt like this. We’re hard-wired to get enjoyment from a certain amount of exercise due to the positive effects it has on the body and brain: increased levels of dopamine and serotonin – the ‘feel-good’ chemicals – released in the brain during exercise give us mood-boosting effects and also minimise the harmful effects of stress on the brain. We might not be able to see these benefits as we can with weight loss, but we can most certainly feel them.
Physical activity has been proven time and time again to have a positive impact on our mental well-being, as well as preventing and managing mental health conditions including depression and anxiety. Incredibly, regular exercise can reduce the risk of depression by up to a third. Some studies have shown it to be as effective at treating mental illness as psychological therapy or even antidepressants, to the extent that regular exercise programmes are now commonly ‘prescribed’ by doctors to those suffering with mental ill-health. For all of us, taking exercise can provide a greater sense of control and capability in what our mind and body can achieve. It can also help us manage our stress levels, giving us the chance to ‘clear our head’ and escape the day-to-day stresses we all know and experience. Activity can enhance our lives through connecting with other people, such as through team sports or activity classes, as well as help us to sleep better and have more energy during the day. Our mental performance – concentration, memory and alertness – can also feel the benefits. The psychological sum of all these effects is that physical activity tends to make us feel more confident with greater self-esteem and a positive body image.
So, whether we suffer from mental health or not, physical exercise can have a significant effect on our mental well-being and make us feel happier and healthier. A healthy mind needs a healthy body; a healthy body needs a healthy mind.
What sort of activity should I do?
We should all be aiming to meet the UK guidelines for physical activity in adults (see above). However, it’s important that we consider these recommendations on an individual basis: what is one person’s moderate activity may not be someone else’s. Equally, don’t run before you can walk (excuse the pun but you’ll see my point) – by that I mean there’s no need to launch straight in to running five times a week if your normal is an occasional walk on a weekend. Here are some pointers on how to tailor your activity to help you reap the greatest physical and psychological benefits:
- Make it enjoyable! – Find an activity that you LIKE. There’s nothing more de-motivating than the feeling of dread before going for a run or taking part in a spin class when you simply don’t enjoy it. Try out different activities to see what works for you. Eventually you’ll find one that doesn’t feel like a chore but that you actually look forward to doing! Physical exercise should be fun and if it’s starting to feel the opposite then switch it up a little: try something different and see how it makes you feel.
- Gauge your level of fitness – Find out what it takes for you get reach the ‘moderate activity’ threshold by using things like your heart rate, breathing rate and how easily you can hold a conversation to guide the intensity of your exercise. For some, a brisk walk may be enough; for others it might take more. Make it work for
- Be sociable – For the greatest psychological benefits, physical activity with other people is your best bet. Team sports and exercise classes can give you the opportunity to meet new people and develop social skills whilst having a laugh and keeping fit. What’s not to like?
- Get outdoors – Research has proven that the greatest mental health benefits come when regular activity is taken outdoors in green, open spaces and/or near to open water (so a park with a lake is ideal). So get outside when you can and make the most of that fresh air and vitamin-D giving sunlight (wishful thinking?).
- Start low, go slow – If you’re new to exercise (or even if not) it’s important not to go too hard too soon. Start gradually with a realistic and achievable amount of activity to get you going, then increase it as your fitness levels improve. Doing too much too soon can often leave you feeling tired, unmotivated and less likely to continue exercising.
- Make it sustainable – ‘Nothing worth having comes easy’, right? We’ve all heard a similar saying to that and it’s very true in the instance of physical activity. Changes made to our activity levels need to fit in with our lifestyle and be realistic and sustainable. In order to get most benefit from exercise we need to be consistent and patient.
- Every step counts – Even the smallest of changes in our activity levels can have significant improvements on our general fitness and well-being. Taking the stairs rather than the lift, or going for a short walk on your lunch break are just some examples of how you can up your activity without (really) noticing it. Small changes can be just as valuable as bigger ones.
Rodders (Personal Trainer with Drop Away ©)