Everyone knows the physical benefits of exercise. We’re brainwashed about it from the age of 7 in P.E. lessons and after school clubs. Lots of us love it (including me, when I have the motivation anyway). However many are sickened by the mere through of exercise: Go to the gym? I bet you can think of more entertaining things that result in sweat. Running? Ladies, I expect you’d rather keep your boobs inside your top and away from your fact at risk of knocking you out. Sport? The majority of us lack the talent (or the gorgeous face, lets be honest) that David Beckham owns.
I personally disagree with these views, I do enjoy my exercise, but I can see why people think them and do not want to exercise. Exercise is hard work, and the societal pressures to have the “perfect body” are actually probably enough to put people off exercising and sit at home instead and order a pizza and either feel sorry for yourself or perfectly content and happy with not exercising (I like the thought of this too actually, balanced lifestyle right?). I don’t blame you, really, having the “perfect body” is not everything, and definitely not at the top of my list of priorities. However, exercise is not only good for the body, it’s good for the mind. The topic of “exercise” is a good one to start viewing your body and mind not as separate things, but one.
The American Psychological Association state on their website that a healthy lifestyle, including exercise, and a healthy body can have a positive impact on thoughts and behaviour. There is not enough awareness on the mental health outcomes of exercise; this is what Professor Otto PhD of Boston University believes. He claims that within 5 minutes of beginning moderate exercise you get what is called a “mood enhancement effect” which is literally what it says on the tin – your mood is enhanced. Using this, it has been explained that exercise can help alleviate long-term depression.
A study completed by psychologists at Duke University found that physically active people were actually less depressed than inactive people. They found that patients who were on antidepressants, and patients who completed an exercise program both had higher rates of remission than those patients who had neither. They concluded that exercise is comparable to antidepressants for major depressive disorder.
This is obviously to be taken lightly. Not enough research has been completed to stop production of anti-depressants and for prescriptions of gym memberships to be handed out instead; however it is a start. Its a start for healthy people, those without a diagnosis of depression, as if exercise can alleviate depression and enhance mood then logically it should be able to help fight the onset of depression, and having an enhanced mood is never a bad thing. It’s also good news for those who do have a diagnosis and are even on medication – every little helps, right!?
Further more, this evidence has been replicated in young people. In an American school, physically fit 6th graders were less likely to report feeling depressed when they reached 7th grade than unfit 6th graders. In this study (Ruggero, 2014) fitness was concluded to be an important factor in curbing students depression.
Not only has exercise been found to help with depression, but with anxiety too. Everyone’s been nervous before, therefore you’ll be familiar with the “fight or flight sensations”. It’s an evolutionary trait us humans developed in order to help us survive way back when we were cave men, and it helps us now too. When we’re put into dangerous situations, our bodies go into overdrive – we sweat, we get a burst of energy, our heart race increases; all to get us ready to either fight the danger or to get the fuck out of there (…flight).
People who have anxiety generally tend to have an easily stimulated fight or flight system, meaning their body panics at things that it really doesn’t need to panic at – like getting on a bus, being in social situations, leaving the house, etc. Smitts and Otto (2011) concluded that regular workouts can help these individuals. Exercise produces similar symptoms to fight or flight – the sweating, the high heart rate etc, and exercising can help the mind to associate these symptoms with safety rather than danger, making it less likely for them to panic at situations their mind previously deemed “dangerous”.
There are a few explanations as to why exercise is so beneficial to mental health. For you scientists out there Richard Maddock, who is a professor of psychiatry and behavioural sciences, says that major depressive disorder is linked to depleted glutamate and GABA in the brain. There is evidence to suggest that exercise activates the metabolic pathways that replenishes these neurotransmitters. Exercise also increases endorphins and serotonin, both of which are natural mood boosters.
However if all of that just went straight over your head (I’m thinking of you, Mum), there are some simpler reasons as to why exercise can improve your mental health. It can normalise your sleep pattern, and research shows that healthy sleep patterns produce a protective effect against depression and other related mental health problems. It is also a meaningful activity, something that can make you feel accomplished – it can just generally make you feel active and make you feel good about yourself (kinda relates back to those endorphins I was talking about earlier). Not to mention the weight loss, heightened fitness levels, and the social aspect that can come alongside exercising – whether it’s in the gym, team sports, individual sports, or just getting out and about by going for walks.
If you’ve ever struggled to lose weight, you know that it can take weeks and even months for the physical results of exercise to be apparent – emotionally and mentally however the effects are almost instant! By the time you finish your warm up, you’ll be in a better mood than you were before you started. It’s important to exercise even when you feel bad, or when you feel you’re at your worst, because that’s where you’ll get the biggest pay off and really notice the positive effects of it.
So there you have it, if you ever needed another excuse to get up and go for a quick 20 minute walk here it is. Even if you don’t want or need the physical benefits, there’s no such thing as a perfectly healthy mind- so now there’s no excuse!