It’s interesting that my fist blog comes on a Mental Health Awareness week.
This subject is very close to my heart and I strongly believe that regular exercise helped me escape depression more than once.
So today I’d like to share with you how exercise can make you feel happier, calmer and more confident, reduce stress levels and improve sleeping patterns. Regular exercise may also improve your memory, focus, creativity, and, some studies suggest, prevent brain diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease.
Let’s start with few body science facts.
When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called endorphins, causing the feeling of euphoria or so called “runner’s high”. Furthermore, endorphins reduce your perception of pain (similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine), can help reduce anxiety, make you feel calmer and boost you self-esteem.
Another chemical produced during the exercise is called serotonin. Low levels of serotonin are associated with lack of motivation, depression and suicidal behaviour. It’s a bit of a “catch 22” situation, as when you are depressed you don’t really feel like exercising. But some studies show that exercise can be as effective in rising serotonin levels as prescription antidepressants. So, when feeling low, try to force yourself to start a physical activity. The production of serotonin may help you reduce anxiety, lift your spirits and energy levels. Start slow. Even 5-10min of exercise per day can help you change your life. But don’t be too ambitious or hard on yourself as this can sometimes be demotivating.
Exercise, especially high-intensity workout, can increase a production of a chemical called norepinephrine responsible for making you more alert and focused. Norepinephrine also boosts memory retrieval, so you become better at retrieving information stored in your brain.
Let’s not forget about dopamine– a brain chemical, sometimes called “the molecule of happiness”. Increased production of this chemical during the exercise promotes feelings of pleasure, and it makes us look forward to enjoying life and various activities. Dopamine also allows you to stay focused, motivated and have more interest in your surrounding.
But effects of exercise on our mental health are not only about chemical reactions happening in our bodies.
Bad posture is thought to increase levels of stress so no matter what your mood is, try and stay tall, look ahead and keep a confident stance. Be mindful of how you walk, stand, sit. What is your posture like when making a cup of tea, talking on the phone, reading a book? Most of us are guilty of slouching too much, sitting with the same leg crossed, carrying a bag on the same shoulder, resting a child on the same hip… Bad posture habits can lead to back, muscle and joint pain or feeling tired and drained. Chronic pain can, in turn, lower your mood and lead to depression. Correct posture set up plays an important role in some physical activities such as Pilates and Yoga so, if you feel it is your posture that is letting your down, it might be worth attending those classes to develop better body awareness and improve your stance.
Exercise strengthens abdominal muscles and stimulates the stomach to secrete more digestive juices leading to relief from constipation and feeling bloated. It also promotes healthy digestion when you’re at rest making you feel happier, more mobile and content with yourself. Of course, apart from regular exercise, it is very important to eat healthily and follow a balance diet. If you are not sure about your dietary habits find a nutritionist who can help you identify areas in need of change and offer support.
Regular physical activity may reduce insomnia and improve sleeping patterns by decreasing arousal, anxiety and depressive symptoms. Exercise triggers an increase in body temperature, and the post-exercise drop in temperature may promote falling asleep so time your exercise well if you are suffering from any sleep disorder. Good night sleep makes us feel more energetic, confident and happy. Lack of it can lead to mood swings, anxiety and depression.
Good exercise plan will improve your cardiovascular and muscular systems. You will tone your body, improve skin appearance, increase stamina and flexibility, and help control weight. And when you look better, you feel better. Exercise can reduce arthritis and stiffness, and help with back pain. Start slowly to avoid injury. Be realistic in your exercise plan and setting your goals.
Joining a group exercise or training with your partner or a friend can be beneficial. Strong social support is very important for those with depression. You may be able to meet others with similar problems, talk about it and provide each other with emotional comfort and encouragement. Going for a coffee after class is a great way to make new friends. Talking is good. Supressing your feelings can lead to feeling isolated and depressed. Classes can therefore benefit you on the social, emotional and physical level.
So find an activity that you will enjoy- low impact or fast paced, traditional or trendy, solo, couple, group…There is so much out there. However, forcing yourself into doing something you don’t like will NOT make you happier or less stressed. Exercising should be fun!
Make it a “ME- Time. Put exercise into your daily or weekly schedule and don’t let anyone interrupt your routine. Involve a family. De-stress. Have fun. Ensure enough variety to stay interested and motivated. Stick to it. If you exercise regularly, it will soon become part of your lifestyle and help to reduce depression.
Exercise is great for your mental health because you are:
So when you feel your mood is suddenly depleting or your have an anxiety attack, when you can’t concentrate and lack motivation to complete a project, when your body feels tired and you feel like you don’t have the energy to carry on anymore, when your muscles are tense and aching and it feels like the last thing you want to do it get up from the sofa, do exactly just that. Call a friend or invite a family member to keep you company. Do it by yourself if there is no one around. Go out for a brisk walk, go for a swim, cycling… But try and force yourself not to give in to that feeling of nothingness and hopelessness. I promise, you will feel much better afterwards, Suddenly things will look a bit more optimistic, your mind will be clearer and you will feel more creative. You will be like “Wow! I have done it! I have fought off that terrible feeling of emptiness! I have won! I achieved something”
That’s how exercise feels to me. It’s not really about physical appearance or fitness as much as it is about the feeling of euphoria and being on top of the world after the good workout. And that feeling can become really addictive so I get back to it again and again….
If you’d like to chat or let me a comment about how exercise helped you overcome mental illness, please drop me a line.