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Mental health and exercise

It’s well established that exercise plays a major role in improved physical health.

But physical activity can also play an important part of overall mental health and wellbeing.

The myriad benefits of exercise for better physical health are proven – it can assist in the prevention of things like heart disease, stroke and high blood pressure; reduce the risk of developing type 2 diabetes and some cancers; and help build and maintain healthy bones, muscles and joints, reducing the risk of injury.

But crucially, for people who are living with depression, anxiety or other forms of mental illness, exercise can also promote psychological wellbeing.

According to the Blackdog Institute, 16 weeks of regular exercise has been found to be as equally effective as antidepressant medication in the treatment of mild to moderate depression.

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The magic of endorphins

A regular exercise regimen can help provide a source of distraction from stress and worry, improve sleep patterns and self-esteem, and increase energy levels.

Aman Kaur, Mindstep Mental Health Coach for Remedy Healthcare, says research has found a correlation between exercise and elevated endorphin levels. Endorphins are naturally produced opioids that are created within the body and act in a way that is similar to morphine. This creates an exercise-induced euphoria as well as facilitating a reduction in pain.

“When setting up end-of-treatment goals, many clients see themselves as exercising more, which is closely related to managing their emotions better,” Aman says. “I have seen some amazing results when people start to engage in physical activity. It has a ripple effect on other unhelpful behaviours. They also start to work on their diet or start to engage more socially. This impacts overall emotional wellbeing, as it builds up a positive and helpful cycle of thoughts and emotions.”

And while experts agree that exercise can play a role in assisting the treatment of mental illness, it must also be viewed as only part of an overall treatment program for improved mental health.

The social element

There is also a social aspect to exercise and physical activity that is helpful to overall mental health.

The importance of friendships, social groups and the support network those friends provide is highly important.

“People with mental health issues often take themselves out of social engagements,” Aman says. “However, socialising is an important part of the recovery process. Attending social events can not only be a crucial connection but also enhances wellbeing, self-esteem and confidence.”

Prevention is better than cure

Physical activity may also be used as a preventative measure for mental health issues, rather than only as a treatment for existing concerns.

“People often report difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep, a lack of appetite, low self-esteem and difficulty concentrating,” Aman says. “Exercising can positively influence all these symptoms. Simply taking a walk in nature can help reduce cortisol (stress hormones), decrease blood pressure, encourage mindfulness, reset focus and stimulate a calming effect on difficult emotions.” rel="noopener noreferrer"

A recent article in The Lancet Psychiatry has been published from a study of more than one million people across four years. Results found that people who exercised reported fewer days of poor mental health compared to those who did not exercise. Just as interestingly, the study found that even just walking can improve mental health, as the number of poor mental health days decreased by 10% for people who walked.

Some symptoms relating to mental health illness include fatigue, low mood and lack of motivation, which makes it challenging for people to engage in any physical activity.

Achieving even some incidental activity during the day can be a starting point and has immense impact on mood, sense of achievement and emotional wellbeing overall.

“Sometimes the only way to stop uncontrollable thoughts is to get out and take a walk around the block,” Aman says. “It serves as a great distraction and also helps to clear the mind. I have seen patients who are physically active, looking after their kids and grandkids, but as soon as they start an exercise program, they have a sense of achievement, a sense of feeling that now they are doing something for themselves. This in turn builds up their self-confidence and self-esteem.”

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