When thinking about exercise, people tend to focus on its physical benefits, such as it being great for the heart or being a way to reduce body fat content. But what about the positive mental effects that come from an effective workout regime? Gymkit UK recently covered how to exercise effectively throughout the winter months, which is a great start in the exploration of the relationship between exercise and mental health. Winter is the most common time for symptoms of mental health issues to make themselves apparent. This is due to the fact the weather is colder and the days are shorter and darker, which ultimately influences the way our brains function. Therefore, it is important to do what we can to offset the harsh changes that the change in seasons bring, but it is more important to understand why exercise is beneficial in maintaining good mental health. Depression and/or stress can strike at any time and are not just constrained to the winter months, however, luckily for us, exercise is available throughout any season, come rain or shine.
Exercise and the 'feel good factor'
It has long been accepted that people feel good after exercise. It is thought that this is due to the fact that exercise causes the release of mood regulating chemicals within the brain, such as dopamine and serotonin. These chemicals make us feel happy and content, with it being precisely these type of chemicals that anti-depressant medications try to stimulate into action. People with low to low-mild cases of depression are frequently prescribed medication which is unnecessary. Most lower-scale symptoms can be beaten through a well implemented exercise and nutritional regime. This is normally enough for the friendly chemicals to resume their normal activity of regulating mood. Granted, anti-depressants do serve a vital role and are useful to people with harsher symptoms - in this scenario they are useful. However, the over reliance of medication for symptoms that can be overcome naturally is not useful. This is especially apparent when the role of food and nutrition is considered. The over-consumption of caffeine can lead to increased feelings of nervousness, anxiety and depression. Furthermore, many foods contain nutrients that are essential for good mental-health. B-vitamins are essential for our general well-being, as they play a vital role in how our bodies utilise energy. Foods such as meat, eggs, cheese and leafy green vegetables are all high in B-vitamins and it is extremely important that they are included within any balanced diet. There are many supplements on the market that can be beneficial in mood regulation, such as 5-HTP. So even if you are unable to secure all the required nutrients due to special dietary needs, it is not a problem.
Mental health is often made worse by other factors
Very rarely does depression stem from a scenario devoid of any other influence. In many situations, stress and depression intensified by poor sleeping patterns and insomnia. However, frequent exercise can improve insomnia symptoms. iii Exercise is also an effective way to relieve stress. iv It is essential to remember that other non-medical issues can influence people's mood. Work related stress is a frequently misunderstood condition; sometimes it is seen as 'part of the job'. However, it has recently been defined as stress that 'develops because a person is unable to cope with the demands being placed on them' within work roles. v Yet again, a good, structured workout routine can help to combat the feelings of stress and make people feel their everyday lives are much more manageable. Worryingly, despite the obvious benefits of regular exercise, a recent study has shown that only 14% of the adult population regularly exercises.vi This can be because people may think they do not have the time in the day to actively engage with exercising, or they may be too tired to exercise before/after work. However, these are largely superficial issues and can easily be overcome with the correct planning and organisation. In the same light, exercise should not be seen as a chore, or a joyless activity. If you often feel this way, then your current workout routine is not correct for you and you should try something new. Exercise can be a social experience. Gym classes and courses are a place to meet and interact with people. This then means the benefits of exercise and an active lifestyle are two-fold in relation to mental health. It has the physical impacts outlined above, but it also has social benefits, which can also improve a person's mood. The feelings of loneliness, isolation and purposelessness are common within depressed people. These can easily be combated through regular exercise. Regular exercise introduces people into an active community, and if in a period of isolation, such as through unemployment or bereavement, gives the person a reason to manoeuvre out of their loneliness and back into society.
Exercise improves your overall well-being
It is important to realise that a person's health does not just relate to physical attributes, but also mental ones. Therefore, it is necessary for an individual to be happy, healthy and comfortable within both of these aspects. Exercise is a unique process because it directly influences both the mental and physical developments of people. Exercise is indispensable within the pursuit of a healthy lifestyle and is especially useful in terms of mental health. If individuals are feeling down, they should look at their lifestyle before seeking any form of medication (unless the symptoms are severe). In light-to-mild cases, individuals can readjust their lifestyles to better meet their personal needs. This may include examining diet and exercise structures, in order to achieve better results. In many cases, this simple act of self reflection is enough to secure greater feelings of happiness, healthiness and self-worth.
"Physical Activity and Mental Health." Royal College of Psychiatrists. rcpsych.ac.uk (accessed April 7, 2014).
"Food and mood." Mind. mind.org.uk (accessed April 7, 2014).
NHS. "10 tips to beat insomnia." NHS Live Well. nhs.uk (accessed April 7, 2014).
NHS. "Ten stress busters." Stress, Anxiety and Depression. nhs.uk (accessed April 7, 2014).
"Work Related Stress." Health and Safety Executive. hse.gov.uk (accessed April 7, 2014).
"Living With: Depression in Older Adults." Psych Guides. psychguides.com (accessed April 9, 2014).
Lange, Catherine. "No Pain, No Gain? Getting the Most out of Exercise." The Observer. thegaurdian.com (accessed April 7, 2014).
"Working Out in the Winter Months." Gymkit UK. ww.gymkituk.com/working-out-in-the-winter-months.html (accessed April 5, 2014).
"5-HTP." Holland & Barrett. hollandandbarrett.com (accessed April 9, 2014).