Exercise & Mental Health

Exercise & Mental Health

workout flowchart1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem of some kind in their lifetime. These numbers are on the rise and prescription medications are increasingly being used in reflection. Alternative therapies do exist and research into the effect that exercise can have on mental health has been gaining momentum. Antidepressants and drug treatments are the most frequently prescribed, and this is usually the only treatment offered.1 While they can be effective they can also have unpleasant side-effects, meaning many people prefer psychological therapy to drug treatment. Unfortunately, due to the high demands for counselling, there may be excessively long waiting lists for such treatment. The benefits of exercise for physical health are well recognised and it can be just as effective as CBT or Antidepressants in treating mild depression2. However, the positive effect exercise can have on mental health, in particular depression, anxiety, negative mood and low self-esteem is not well promoted.3

Benefits of Exercise

Mental health and physical health are linked together, so what are the potential benefits of regular exercise for mental health?

The actual mechanism by which exercise causes positive psychological changes are not yet clear but we do know that exercising has the following benefits:

  • Reduces tension stress and mental fatigue
  • Gives us a natural energy boost
  • Improves sleep
  • Gives us a sense of achievement
  • Helps improve focus
  • Improves motivation
  • Reduces anger and frustration
  • Improves appetite
  • Can help improve social engagement
  • Naturally boosts energy

All of these benefits can improve overall well being, it can give you a sense of achievement or a goal to strive for. Personally I find that exercise gives me time away from everyday problems and negative thinking. It reduces my stress and I get a chance to focus on myself and work on my personal training goals.

How much exercise is enough?

The UK National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence recommends structured exercise, 3 times a week for 10 to 14, weeks for the treatment of mild to moderate depression4.

Exercising 3 times a week gives you a regular boost, and exercising for 30 minutes up to 5 times a week can be most beneficial. Try to aim for moderate aerobic exercise, which means keeping your heart rate up, breathing faster than normal and getting warm rather than sweaty. You don’t have to use the gym or jump in at the deep end straight away, try building up to regular training slowly and choosing something that you enjoy will really help you stick with it. Getting outdoors is great as it may improve low mood and seasonal depression (SAD) 5.

Getting Started

Any physical activity needs to be something that you can do regularly and enjoy. If you’re feeling depressed or anxious it might be harder to get moving and your mind may throw up lots of barriers:

  • ‘I don’t have the energy’
  • ‘I don’t feel confident enough’
  • ‘I don’t know anybody to exercise with’
  • ‘I don’t have the right clothes’
  • ‘I can’t afford it’
  • ‘I’m just not the exercise type’
  • ‘It won’t make a difference’

For some people, exercise can be going to the gym or playing a sport, but it doesn’t have to be that way for everyone. The most important thing is that you do something you feel comfortable with; that can be just getting more active or setting yourself a walking challenge for the day. No one has to know you’re doing it and it can be something you keep for yourself if you don’t want to share it with someone else. Start by working out how much you do already, for example you can use a pedometer to show you how many steps you take every day. Or you could keep a diary for a few days of how long you spend doing active things. Then set yourself some goals.

Make your goals achievable and start small, as doing too much when you start can make you more tired, especially if you haven’t been active for a while. Build up gradually and make sure your goals are measurable so you know when you’ve achieved them. Give yourself goals that mean something to you, so you feel good about yourself when you achieve them, and give yourself a reasonable time limit in which to achieve them.

You may have days where you just don’t feel like doing anything, and that’s fine. Acknowledge that it’s happened, but try not to worry about it. Nobody’s perfect. If you don’t meet a goal, that’s also OK, short-term setbacks don’t matter over the long-term as a long as you keep going. Tomorrow is another day and you can start again.

Struggling with mental health problems? Check out http://www.pobl.org.uk/ for someone to talk to.

  1. Clinical Standards Advisory Group, 2000
  2. Taylor AH, Faulkner, G .2008. Inaugural Editorial Mental Health and Physical Activity. 1:1
  3. Kirby S. 2005. The positive effect of exercise as a therapy for clinical depression, Nursing Times; 101:13
  4. http://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/CG90
  5. Artal, M., Sherman, C. 1998. Exercise against depression.The Physician and Sports Medicine; 26: 10.

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