Mental and physical health are so often treated as two separate entities, when the reality is, one cannot exist without the other. If we are physically well, we are more able to stay mentally healthy. Physical wellbeing promotes recovery.
To stay well, we need to live a balanced lifestyle, by taking plenty of exercise, eating healthily, getting quality sleep and managing stress. In this article, I’m going to look at exercise as a tool to create a balanced lifestyle and to help us stay mentally well.
The benefits of regular exercise are well publicised. We know that it increases aerobic fitness and strength, it improves flexibility and balance, and reduces the risk of diseases such as coronary heart disease, diabetes and some cancers.
These physiological benefits are huge. But what about the effects on mental health?
The most tangible benefits of exercise often reported by those with mental health problems include:
– reduced stress and anxiety
– better sleep
– a sense of mastery and achievement
– better self image
– reduced isolation.
A lot of sufferers simply say that exercise makes them feel better. Such benefits are vital to put people on the path to recovery. Improved physical health and fitness is a bonus.
Why then, is exercise so beneficial to mental health?
The research falls into two categories* The first looks at physiological explanations:
– Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, the body’s ‘feel good’ hormones
– Exercise normalises the chemical balance of serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline in the brain. Imbalances and deficiencies of these chemicals have been linked to mental health conditions
– Exercise increases body temperature, which promotes relaxation.
The second body of research looks at psychological explanations:
– Exercise is a distraction. There is a focus on ‘doing’ rather than thinking and ruminating
– It promotes a sense of achievement, a ‘can do’ way of thinking and a better sense of self and ability
– Exercise promotes social interaction, a sense of belonging and brings structure to the day.
Whichever explanation you identify with most, exercise undeniably benefits the mind and body in so many ways.
It will be really tough to motivate yourself in the early stages of your illness. But just do something. Even a ten minute walk in the fresh air and the sunshine. Notice how it makes you feel. Notice how it makes you realise ‘I can do this!’ Notice how quickly exercise can become the best part of your day, and a crucial step on the way to being the healthiest and most balanced version of you.
*Leith, L.M. (1994) Foundations of Exercise and Mental Health, USA Fitness Information Technology.