“Hold on!” I hear you say. “This is a mental health blog. We exercise for our physical health. What has exercise to do with mental health?”
To put it simply…a lot.
We are all well aware of the benefits of physical fitness. For years we have been told the benefits of cutting down on eating so much sugar and saturated fats or lowering our cholesterol. Even the youngest child at school will learn about how exercise, even a gentle stroll around the playground, is good for our hearts. As adults, we are encouraged to engage in at least 15 minutes to half an hour of moderate physical exercise at least five days per week. In reality, how many of us out there manage to cram at least two and a half hours of exercise per week in between the commitments to work and family life?
However, we should never underestimate the benefits of exercise. Exercise is not just good for our bodies, but for our minds. Although it can be difficult to make time to go to the gym or take part in a sporting activity, when we finally manage to force ourselves to go, we often find it is both enjoyable and rewarding. Some people feel the time spent exercising gives them an escape from the day-to-day grind of modern life. Others feel that exercise can be empowering - they discover that facing up to physical challenges and overcoming them is rewarding and can help to improve their sense of self-worth.
Exercise has been shown to reduce the harmful changes in the brain caused by exposure to high levels of stress. Moderate exercise can actually stimulate growth and development of brain cells. In addition to this, exercise has an effect on the release of neurotransmitter chemicals in the brain. Serotonin is the brain’s naturally occurring “happy drug”; it decreases feelings of depression and helps to improve positive social behaviour. It has been shown to be produced by long-term cardio exercise. Dopamine is a chemical that can stimulate feelings of extreme pleasure and could account for the “runner’s high” when exercising.
Another benefit of exercise is that it can provide us with enjoyable social contact with others. Humans are naturally social creatures and we need contact with other people. Joining an exercise class or a sports team can provide us with a healthy level of social interaction and cooperation. Exercise does not have to involve a solitary person pounding away on a treadmill for an hour. Exercise can be an interactive, social occasion. Indeed, it is far easier to motivate ourselves to head out to the sports centre or the running track if we know that we will be meeting other people there.
We do not have to be top athletes or finely-sculpted gym enthusiasts to benefit from exercise. Just because we aren’t ‘into’ sport, does not mean that we cannot take ourselves for a walk or spend some time swimming a few lengths in the pool. It might seem like a chore when you start trying to squeeze exercise time into your busy schedule, but the benefits will soon become clear.
Taigh Sàmhchair: professional counselling and psychotherapy
Hereward Proops MBACP, registered member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy
01851 871094 / 07815662208