Mental Health & Exercise

Woman jogging

The Greek physician Hippocrates once said: ‘Walking is man’s best medicine’. 470-360 BC. Have we forgotten the benefits of exercise? Mental health is influenced by a number of factors including personal circumstances, upbringing, work and family life, personal experience, family history, friends, sleep and diet. It is also influenced by exercise.

In order to function optimally we should strive for good mental and physical health. So, what is good mental health? Good mental health might be characterised by having the ability to learn, the ability to feel and express a range of positive and negative emotions. With good mental health we are able to develop and maintain healthy positive relationships with others as well as ourselves.

Good mental health is on the decline and mental health difficulties are on the rise. Globally over 284 million suffer from anxiety, worldwide and upwards of 264 million people suffer from depression. This post examines the way exercise can be beneficial for our mental health.

Hunter gatherers

How our Lifestyle Effects our Ability to Exercise?

One of the reasons why we are experiencing more mental health difficulties is the way we lives on a daily basis. Our hunter gatherer ancestors moved and exercised in order to live and survive. Exercise involved finding new places to live, hunt for food, find new areas to forage or avoid predators. We walked for over 12 km’s every day. From an evolutionary perspective we have spent 99% of our time on planet earth living in this way in order to survive.

It is only recently that we have become industrialised and technology has become digitalised and the internet has played such a large role in our lives.

In today’s society we no longer need to move, out of necessity to live. We can choose whether or not we exercise. This means that on average the distance we cover each day is 3km’s. The jobs that we carry out on a daily basis are relatively sedentary in comparison to being hunter gatherers or farmers in order to live. Evolving as a species takes thousands of years. From an evolutionary perspective we are biologically the same as our ancestors who lived thousands of years ago. Biologically we are programmed to move and move often, however we no longer do so. Because movement and exercise were so crucial for survival our brains complement exercise by an increased capacity to focus and an increase in memory capability. This is partly due to needing to remember new landscapes and be the focused hunter in order to catch prey to survive.

So, we are living a lifestyle which does not complement the way we have evolved on earth in order to survive. It therefore stands to reason that we are likely to encounter more mental health difficulties because of a sedentary lifestyle.

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Why do we feel better if we exercise?

When we exercise our bodies have to adapt to enable us to complete the exercise we are doing. In order to combat the stress that the body is put under our heart rate increases to pump blood around the body. We release chemicals called endorphins from the brain, spine and other parts of the body. These chemicals are designed to minimise pain caused by stressful activity. They cause a natural high, sometimes called ‘runners high’, a euphoric feeling we can experience after exercising. This is a similar to the feeling we experience from morphine.

What are the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?

Millions of people suffer from Stress, Anxiety and Depression worldwide. These difficulties are experienced on a cognitive and physical level. Both the brain and the body are important when it comes to good mental health. Research carried out by Harvard T.H Chan school of Public Health discovered that running for fifteen minutes or walking for one hour can reduce the risk of major depression by 26%.

Exercise can help to reduce tension held in the body caused by stress or reset shallow breathing which is often symptomatic of anxiety. We release stress hormones called cortisol and adrenaline when we exercise. Experiencing anxiety or stress regularly, means we might have high levels of cortisol and adrenaline in our systems. Although exercising causes more stress hormones, after a workout or exercise these levels drop back down to a healthy level often lower than when we experience chronic stress or anxiety. Exercise therefore helps to mitigate anxiety and stress symptoms.

Woman relaxing

Research measuring the effect of regular exercise on children with ADHD found decreased severity of ADHD symptoms and improved cognitive function, memory, focus and mood. Exercise can work in a similar way to ADHD medications like Ritalin and Adderall.

Exercise enables us to become much more aware of our bodies and stay grounded. Taking a mindful approach to exercise, especially in nature can assist with PTSD symptoms. Just getting up and walking can help someone break out of a freeze response caused by trauma. Walking in nature in a mindful way can signal that you are safe and help the nervous system to calm down and restore you to homeostasis. It can also give you the opportunity to mindfully tune into the body’s senses (felt sense) enabling the nervous system to calm down.

Benefits of Regular Exercise

  • Self-esteem increases with exercise. Feeling like you are doing something healthy for your mind and body means you are valuing yourself.
  • More energy – Using energy creates more energy for everyday living
  • Improves memory and increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is responsible for memory.
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Muscle tone and strength
  • Strengthens bones
  • Reduces body fat
  • Healthy glow - Looking into the mirror seeing a healthy well exercised you helps you to feel good about yourself and people will also notice.
  • Sleep – Regular exercise helps us to regulate sleep patterns as well as help with the quality of sleep