Our knowledge and our association to link our physical activity habits to our physical health and weight management is typically advanced.
However, our understanding of the relationship between physical activity and our mental health is perhaps less understood, despite considerable scientific knowledge that now exists.
Often, January is the month for articles that encourage us to get up and get moving.
In this sense, we usually navigate a deluge of ‘how-to literature’ for getting back on-track with respect to introducing physical activity and its structured form ‘exercise’ into our lifestyle.
In October, Mental Health Week provides a time to increase our awareness of poorly understood mental illnesses, and a time for us to reflect on our own mental health and the lifestyle choices we make that shape the contours of our mental wellbeing. Exercise is fast becoming recognised as one of the more powerful moderators of our mental health and is arguably one of the more easily modifiable influencers to boot. Mental Health Week offers an opportunity to give your weighing scales the week-off and allow you time to reconsider exercise as a key tool in your mental health toolkit. Here are some things you might not have considered.
First, across the life-course of young and older, there is definitive evidence that regular physical activity reduces the risk of someone going on to develop diagnosed depression later in life.
To quantify this, a study published in the respected American Journal of Psychiatry found that being active reduces your risk of developing depression by 17% to 40%. Major depression as we know it is a disorder of many factors, but primary to this is a pervasive impact on mood and thoughts.
We can therefore confidently say that exercise is important for protecting our mental health into the future, much like a savings account. What you put in, you get out.
For people that have diagnosed illness, the benefits of exercise remain as a therapeutic. Structured exercise delivered according to the HSE guidelines, which recommend more than 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week, including resistance based exercise, can have a strong impact on mood for people with depression.
This type of exercise is also shown to have a moderate impact to reduce symptoms of anxiety in people with anxiety disorder, which is also one of the more common mental health diagnoses in Ireland.
In addition to this, people that live with challenging diagnoses like schizophrenia who can also experience these symptoms, can similarly get a therapeutic lift in mood and anxiety through exercise.
With this considered, we can think of exercise as a form of treatment, with the most powerful effects reserved for those that currently don’t do very little exercise!
There are many reasons posited as to why physical activity, or structured exercise impacts on our mood, our anxiety and other mental health elements like clarity of thinking.
The scientific evidence to credit the theory that our systems become awash with endorphins during exercise, that in-turn act on our mood is surprisingly weak.
But rather, there are a number of different biological, psychological and social processes happening, each playing a contributing role and also acting in combination to regulate our mental health during and after exercise. As an example, there have been trials that have replaced routine exercise with prolonged sitting among people without mental illness.
Over just one week of extra sitting, participants’ mood showed a large deterioration and simultaneous changes in the blood to indicate an unseen inflammation response.
The suggestion here is that excessive sedentariness, such as lazing on the sofa, induces a body-wide state of un-seen inflammation over time. Exercise delivers a response that helps to offset this; the implication is that disrupting sedentary habits can have an immediate impact on our mood and the processes of the body that are implicated.
There is also early evidence to suggest that exercise has a role in enhancing particular cell regeneration of certain areas of the brain that have been implicated in illness such as depression.
There are also more straightforward reasons.
For example, many people choose to exercise with friends.
In doing this, they interact with others, share stories and achieve goals together. In addition to this, when we become regularly active, our muscles strengthen and our capacity to carry out daily tasks, like shopping and housework become more manageable, sleep patterns will improve and our physical health improves in-turn.
Mood will naturally follow this improved trajectory of living standard. All things considered, the complexity of the topic is clear, and the work for scientists is not yet through.
Despite all this good news, history tells us that simply having knowledge on the benefits of a particular behaviour seldom has any lasting effect on our ability to make a sustained behaviour change.
While more exercise is undoubtedly achievable for most, rest assured that even the most avid exercise champion will share similar barriers to exercise felt by the most sedentary. There are a number of things you can do to make the change easier:
1. Set goals that are achievable and realistic.
2. Learn to connect your exercise routine with your mental state. For example, document your mood and thoughts after exercise and learn to link your mental health to your exercise habit.
3. Identify activities that give you some pleasure. Perhaps it’s the connection you made with others, the time spent in green spaces, your favourite music, or learning a new skill; exercise experienced as punishment is not sustainable.
4. Identify the time that best suits you to be active. Block-off this time and ensure nothing else takes precedent.
5. The support of a professional might help you stay focused in the early days if you can afford it. Ensure they are suitably qualified and recommended.
6. Give back, reach out to others and support them to join you on your journey.
7. It is important to recognise that exercise is not a silver bullet for mental health problems, but rather one of many resources that can be used. It should not replace help that comes from your doctor.
8. Exercise is for everyone, so happy sweating and happy mental health week!
Dr Evan Matthews is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Department of Nursing and Health Care, Waterford Institute of Technology. As part of Mental Health Awareness Month this October, he explores the relationship between physical activity, lifestyle and mental health