Exercise in the management of Mental Health issues.
Over the weekend I had the privilege of being asked to speak to around 150 people that had turned out for a charity event organised by the Black Dog Institute. The event was held to raise funds and awareness for an issue that has come in to prominent focus over the last few years, Mental Health and Depression. I spoke very briefly about the benefits that can be achieved through using exercise as a treatment modality for mental health, and I wanted to share some of the information with you all as well.
Research suggests that as many as 1 in 4 Australians suffer from some form of mental health problems. The most common of these are anxiety and depression. We see day in and day out in our Personal Training studios the amazing benefits that can be achieved by clients who are suffering from mental health issues and to me, not enough people are aware of just how big an impact it can make. We have people coming from various backgrounds including military, paramedics and police with PTSD, former substance abusers, people who have suffered injuries, lost people close to them, people in chronic pain, pregnant and post-natal women, and commonly people who just feel overwhelmed with a multitude of different pressures in their lives. We see adolescents, adults, seniors and even some young children with self-esteem and self-confidence issues. Men and women, old and young, it doesn’t discriminate. One thing that has proven clear to me is that regardless of the background and the “causes” of the depression, exercise can play a vital role in helping people recover, become happier and re-take control of their lives.
How does exercise help?
One of the primary benefits associated with exercise is the fact it has been shown to increase the production and utilisation of a neurotransmitter called Serotonin. Serotonin is responsible for the regulation of mood, sleep, appetite, libido as well as other important functions. Issues with depression have been linked closely to disruptions to the serotonin pathways, and many of the common medications used for depression relate to the stimulation and uptake of this neurotransmitter. What this means is that through exercise, we are able to find a natural and healthy alternative to the use of medications which rarely come without negative side effects.
Some of the common side effects of depression medications can include
- increased appetite and weight gain
- loss of sexual desire and other sexual problems, such as erectile dysfunctionand decreased orgasm
- fatigueand drowsiness
- dry mouth
- blurred vision
Now let’s consider that in relation to the side effects of exercise
- you look better
- you feel better
- you get stronger
- you get fitter
- you sleep better
- you have more energy
- it elevates your mood
- It decreases the risk of some pretty dangerous things such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and some kinds of cancer.
I know which side effects id like happening to me.
Another great benefit of exercising is that quite often it allows the person suffering to get out and socialize, connect with other people and reduce the loneliness which can come about from the common retreat into isolation for people with depression. It promotes the person to feel like they are actively contributing to their own recovery, taking control and doing something productive. This in turn creates a boost in their own self-esteem which is a massive step towards recovery.
What type of exercise is best?
Honestly it doesn’t really matter. Research suggests that benefits can be gained from any moderate intensity exercise that lasts for 30 mins in duration. Resistance training and cardio training will both produce the elevations in mood through endorphin release, so it really comes down to what the person will enjoy the most, and find it easiest to commit to each day. Ideally the 30mins of exercise will be done daily, but any exercise is better than none so don’t feel pressured in to training every day. If you miss a day, then start again the next day. Don’t let one missed day throw out the entire plan.
Moderate intensity training is defined as any type of training that elevates your heart rate to a level where you can’t hold a fluent conversation without having to stop to catch your breath occasionally. A brisk walk will get the job done.
I always encourage my clients to exercise first thing in the morning. This will help them kick start their energy levels for the day, as well as boost their mood and motivation levels to achieve more throughout the rest of the day. The hardest part I have found with my clients is actually getting themselves out of bed and in to action. Some days they will win that battle, and other days I receive texts like “really rough night mate, won’t be in today”. This is all part of the process, and the more times that person wins the battle to get up and get moving, the easier it becomes to keep winning moving forward.
One way to stack the odds in your favour to win this battle each day is to have someone that holds you accountable. That could be a close family member, training partner, friend, relative, or if you have the means, an exercise physiologist or personal trainer. Having an appointment or someone to keep you motivated and accountable can make all the difference in the early stages.
Remember you don’t have to join a gym to get the benefits, you just need to get moving. Walk the dog, do yoga, swim laps, mow the lawn, jog around the block, crack out your old bike that has been sitting in the shed gathering cobwebs. It makes very little difference what you do, just do something.
What does the research show?
A large body of research is now available supporting the benefits of exercise for the management of mental health issues. Research studies have shown that regular bouts of moderate intensity exercise not only reduce the prevalence of depression and anxiety, but it has also been shown to be as effective as medication in the treatment of “non-melancholic” depression.
Multiple studies have shown that over a 16 week period, exercise was equally as effective as medication in the reduction of depressive symptoms. It has also been shown to improve the effectiveness of medication in people who have previously been less responsive to medication.
You should always continue whatever medication is prescribed for you by your doctor, however exercise is a very powerful way to remove yourself in the long term from these potentially harmful drugs.
We see first-hand the positive impact exercise has on people with mental health issues, and if you or anyone close to you are struggling, encourage them to take action and get moving. Getting started is the hardest part. Often the last thing in the world they want is to exercise, but I guarantee what they want most in the world is to be happy again, and this is the healthiest way back to getting that feeling.