This article has been supplied and reproduced with permission from the Great Health Guide, a 96five community contributor.
Each year, one in every five Australians will experience a mental illness. The most common type, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS), are anxiety disorders, followed by mood disorders, which includes depression. Common and effective treatment pathways for mental health disorders include counselling and medication. However, there is a strong link between movement and mental health and exercise can be used to assist with alleviating the severity of anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Although exercise can sometimes feel like the hardest thing to do, the research link between movement and improved mental health is constantly growing. Serotonin, the best known ‘happy’ chemical, is produced in the brain during exercise.
Exercise to reduce depression and mood disorders.
Longstanding depression is not only unpleasant for the sufferer, but it is also associated with an increased likelihood of having a chronic disease, such as cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. The proven benefits of movement and being active for managing depression include:
- Improved mood, particularly via the neurotransmitter serotonin, which increases after a single bout of exercise
- Improved self-concept and self-esteem – completing some exercise can give a great sense of achievement
- Improved performance at work – people who exercise in the morning are better able to take on challenges during the day
- Improved socialisation – even if the interactions are small and subtle, such as greeting a neighbour in the street or saying hello to the receptionist at the gym, are positive
- Helping to maintain a healthy weight and body image, particularly if medication has caused unwanted weight gain.
Exercise to reduce anxiety:
Anxiety is expressed quite differently from person to person, but regardless of the symptoms, research which supports the link between exercise and managing anxiety, finds the following:
- An immediate lowering of anxiety-related symptoms occurs after exercise. This will be apparent after the completion of 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, such as walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, rowing, or dancing.
- Being physically active can provide a great distraction. Overthinking and persistent worries play a part in anxiety. Most people find that the worries have lost their significance after the exercise is completed.
- Exercises that unite the breath and body movements reduce anxiety. Pilates, yoga and tai chi, are examples as they strengthen the ability to focus on the present moment and leave less room for fear and worry.
Applying the research to real life.
Here are the top tips on getting active in the face of mental distress:
- Realise that the best exercise is something that you’ll come back to. This could include regular walking, a class at the gym, or perhaps something non-traditional like fencing or hula hooping. The key message from the research is that when it comes to improving mood, enjoyment is more important than intensity and duration.
- Find your support network. Mental distress frequently causes feelings of isolation that can engulf and overwhelm the person. Having a trusted, safety net of people can be ideal, for voicing emotions and concerns – perhaps a close family member, partner, friend or health professional, whom you can easily reach when needed. A GP can assist in providing a referral to an accredited exercise physiologist, who specialises in exercise and mental health. A plan can be developed to establish some achievable goals to provide that extra support.
- Use exercise as a circuit breaker. Decision making and rational thought tend to become lost when we’re not feeling our best. In psychological settings, a ‘circuit breaker’ is anything that interrupts the thought pattern and provides some distance between us and our thoughts. This could be a warm bath, a cup of tea, a phone call with someone in your support network, or even better – a brisk walk around the block. A good strategy to get going when you lack motivation, is to promise yourself, that it’s only going to be a short walk and you can return home at any moment. Often by the time you are exposed to fresh air, with a change of scenery, the thoughts have lost their grip and you are able to gain some much-needed perspective.
Always remember that it just takes 20-30 minutes to create a shift in anxious and depressed states, with exercise producing the mood changing neurotransmitters of the brain. Put exercise in the toolkit for managing depression and anxiety and generally improving mental health.