Depression and anxiety is a very real and prevalent worldwide issue. According to the Office for National Statistics, nearly a fifth of adults in the UK experience some sort of anxiety or depression and this figure is growing amongst all age groups.
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If you’re a sufferer of mental health issues, a lot of the time it can feel difficult to motivate yourself to do any activities, particularly ones that are going to benefit your life – this is a form of self-destruction or punishment. However, if you do feel you suffer from anxiety or depression, or you feel you might be prone to it, there is one thing that you can do that has been proven time and time again to help with the effects of mental health problems. I’m sure you might’ve heard this all before, but exercising regularly really is an effective treatment.
A Reddit user named Rob Cornellus has summarised the main points of various studies and the success seen from people on the programmes using Exercise Out Of Depression (EOOD) from the NHS. Here’s his break down of how and why exercise can be used to beat depression:
To summarise the summary of the various papers cited in the book there are several possible mechanisms in which exercise can help with mental health problems. Probably no single mechanism is the entire cause for any individual due to everyone having different physical and psychological backgrounds.
The main theories are
- release of “happy chemicals” in the brain, serotonin etc.
- getting warm promotes feelings of relaxation
- increased self esteem
- added motivation and drive
- time away from negative thoughts
- physical relaxation from stretching etc
- better physical function in the rest of our lives makes things easier
- mindfulness / focus
- better sleep
- increased social interaction
- increased time spent outdoors
- setting and achieving goals
- learning new skills
- eating better
Release of serotonin in the brain
Many studies have shown that even moderate amounts of exercise can increase the levels of serotonin and other related chemicals in the brain. This is the cause of the “runners high”. Not everyone experiences this regularly or consistently. It doesn’t have to be running or other cardio vascular exercise that causes the spike in serotonin. Lifting and other forms of exercise can have the same effect.
Increased levels of relaxation from being warm
This isn’t getting hot and sweaty necessarily. Just having a pleasant warm glow type of feeling from going on a walk or other fairly low intensity exercise. Its similar to the feeling of relaxation experienced by having a hot bath or a sauna or just curling up in a nice warm spot on a cold day.
Increased self esteem
Many people with depression and other mental health problems have self esteem and body image issues. Seeing progress in the mirror in terms of fat loss or muscle gain can be a big boost to an individuals confidence which helps improve their mood overall.
Increased motivation and drive
Keeping to a regular exercise routine requires a lot of motivation, dedication and discipline. This can be applied to other areas of an individuals life as well as exercise. Exercise can show someone that they can overcome barriers and problems in their life and help provide tools to accomplish this.
Time away from negative thoughts
Individuals with depression often spend a great deal of time ruminating over negative thoughts. Many people report that exercising helps limit this type of activity. When someone works out they think about their work out instead of negative things.
Relaxation promoted by exercise
Many types of exercise promote physical relaxation. Yoga, t’ai chi etc involve gentle slow movements that relax the body. Often ‘cool down’ stretches or flexibility exercises have the same effect. Many people report a mental relaxation when their body physically relaxes.
Better physical function in the rest of life
If you are fitter (stronger, better endurance, more flexible, faster etc) then the rest of your life becomes a little easier and less stressful. You don’t have to dread running for the bus or being asked to help lift heavy items.
Opportunities for mindfulness and increased focus
Many forms of exercise promote mindfulness and focus both of which have been shown to help with mental health problems. Some forms of exercise like yoga are better than others for this but nearly all types of exercise require concentration on what is going on, awareness of the body and others and living in the moment.
Improved sleep patterns
Insomnia is often associated with mental health problems, particularly depression. Being physically tired at the end of the day promotes more and better quality sleep.
Increased levels of social interaction
Many forms of mental illness are socially isolating. Sufferers withdraw into themselves. Going to a regular exercise class, playing a team sport or even just saying hello to people in the gym help sufferers re-engage with society and this can boost their mental health.
Spending more time outdoors
As individuals with mental health problems withdraw from social interactions they tend to spend more time indoors. This can reduce levels of vitamin D, interrupt sleep cycles, cause back and posture problems from sitting and cause many other medical problems which can make mental health problems worse. As many forms of exercise take place outdoors this means exercise can help in this area too.
Setting and achieving goals
Many forms of exercise enable an individual to set goals and monitor their progress towards achieving the goal. Times for runners, 1RM for lifters, just getting through a zumba class without giving up are all examples. If a person can see they are making progress in one area of their life it is a boost in other areas of their life. Achieving a major goal is a massive boost to self esteem.
Learning new skills
Many studies show that learning new skills helps with depression. Often taking up exercise means learning new skills. Even taking up running requires learning to run well in order to run efficiently and minimise the risk of injury. If you are taking up an entirely new sport or form of exercise such as taking up lifting for the first time there is a lot to learn regarding form and technique, jargon etc. All of this increases the level of mental activity in general helping to reduce the effects of depression.
Eating more healthily
Taking up exercise promotes a more healthy lifestyle in general. Many studies have linked poor diet with mental health problems due to lack of vitamins and minerals in processed and junk food. Learning to cook can be a new skill as well.
Speaking from my own personal experience, I can confirm that a regular exercise routine can really help boost positivity in the brain. Whether you’re depressed, anxious or even a happy person, everyone can benefit from a regular fitness regime.
For more hacks to promote personal happiness and mental wellbeing, check out our guide to mindfulness. Peace out.