Exercise and Your Mental Health


By Luke Foster

It is common knowledge that exercise is good for your physical health; it can reduce your risk of heart attack, help you to manage your weight better, lower your blood pressure, improve your aerobic capacity, trim your waistline, improve your sex life and even extend your life - but did you know that exercise is seriously good for your mental health? 

Research shows that people who exercise regularly have better mental health and lower rates of mental illness. Some studies even suggest that for treating mild-moderate mental health conditions like depression, exercise can be as effective as chatting with a therapist and medication. 

There are several ways that exercise can positively benefit your mental health - brace yourself, I get a bit scientific here: 

  • It promotes all kinds of changes in the brain. It stimulates the release of chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, which make you feel warm and fuzzy. It can lead to neural growth, new activity patterns in the brain that promote feelings of calm and reduce inflammation. Exercise, it seems, is literally a positive ‘brain changer’.
  • It can often be a shared activity which gives you an opportunity to interact with others and reap the benefits of social support. Interacting with others has been shown to promote the release of feel-good chemicals like oxytocin and dopamine.
  • It can help to release muscular and skeletal tension, often leaving you feeling more relaxed.
  • It can help you to sleep better, and good sleep helps you to feel more energised and regulate your moods more effectively.
  • It can give you a sense of accomplishment and improve your self-esteem as your fitness and physique improves.
  • It can, particularly gentle exercise, expedite a return to baseline after a stressful experience by lowering cortisol levels (that is, the stress hormone in the brain).
  • It can influence the effects of ruminating after a stressful experience, by improving (wait for it, this is technical) prefrontal control over the HPA-axis response. In simpler terms, exercise seems to enable people to turn off their stress response faster.

So, what exercise is the best exercise?

Let’s not overcomplicate this! The best exercise for you is the type of exercise you will do on a consistent basis. Scrap notions that you need to be out cross-fitting to the point of nausea, pounding the pavement to the point of blisters, pushing steel around the gym with calloused palms – short bursts of cardiovascular activity, simply 15-20 minutes at a time, can be highly beneficial. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn and begin to use exercise as a springboard to feel better.

If designating additional time in your day specifically for exercise doesn’t sound appealing, why not make exercise a part of your everyday routine? How about walking instead of driving? Why not get off the tram, train or bus a stop or two earlier than usual and walk the rest of the way? Why not walk and talk over a coffee meeting, instead of sitting stationary at a café sipping on your jumbo, iced, sugar-free, vanilla late with soymilk? Be creative to get your daily fix of exercise but keep things simple – the less barriers, the less brain power that needs to go into your exercise routine, the more likely you will be to regularly commit to one.

If you are reading this and thinking that the challenges of kickstarting an exercise routine are being disregarded, please think again. It is certainly understood that motivation doesn’t simply rock up to your doorstep in an Uber Eats bag. For those who are experiencing mental health issues, finding the motivation to exercise can be extremely difficult. But it is not impossible! Action drives motivation, not the other way around. You really need to act; you need to do SOMETHING in order to kickstart your motivation. Here are some tips and tricks on how to start now, using walking with a friend as an example.

Create a to-do checklist. This might seem like overkill but make a checklist that requires you to check boxes.

  1. Contact your friend and schedule a time for a walk.
  2. Map out an enjoyable walking route.
  3. Select your favourite walking getup (LIVIN apparel!) and have it ready to go with your walking shoes.

Create new cues. A new habit needs a new cue.

  1. Put a LIVIN sticker on your fridge so it prompts you to think of your walks.
  2. Enter reminders into your mobile phone so it beeps walking reminders.
  3. Place your walking clothes on the couch so you are forced to pick them up whenever you are tempted to sit on it.

Remove old cues. Old cues will push you into old habits.

  • If you are used to coming home and vegging out in front of the television all afternoon and evening, fill your couch with obstructions so you can’t sit on it. By removing the cue of sitting on the coach, you are breaking your old habit.

Start small, reflect regularly on the benefits you are experiencing, the small wins, and ride the wave of momentum you will slowly begin building.

If you’ve made it this far, please now pull out your phone, text or ring a mate, and commit to starting and sticking to a more regular exercise routine. Additionally, we encourage you to make your way over to Mental Health Australia and make a promise that you will start a more regular exercise routine for the betterment of your physical and mental health. Do it now, do it here https://1010.org.au/make-a-promise/

You mightn’t think that a public commitment like this is important, but research suggests that by committing publicly to something, your evolutionary, innate desire as a human to be consistent will lead you to follow through on your decision – don’t you just love scientific research!

Until next time,

Stay well and remember, #ItAintWeaktoSpeak

 
Photos courtesy of @JakeMalby - @tommynortz - @darcy_swain