I want to start with a caveat: not everyone with mental health problems can exercise. There are many obstacles, including physical conditions or disabilities, financial concerns and some mental illnesses (like anxiety and depression) making it difficult to leave the house. Neither do I consider exercise a substitute for other treatments – if you use exercise to treat your mental health problems so that you don’t have to take medication or go to therapy, good for you, but don’t assume that everyone else can do the same.
It took me years of antidepressants and talking therapies before I could consider using exercise to help improve my mental health. I recently came across an excellent piece on this subject, written in response to some ignorant comments made by a prominent ex-politician: www.thefementalists.com/2013/05/24/louise-mensch-just-doesnt-seem-to-get-it/
However, I have also read an excellent book called Spark! The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain by Dr John J Ratey, which explains the various benefits exercise has for mental health and cognitive function. I recommend that you read the book, which is informative and fascinating, but here are the advantages of exercise that most appealed to me:
- It can help you cope with stress. At the cellular level, exercise is stress. But it “controls the emotional and physical feelings of stress” as it breaks down and builds up neurons (which is similar to how muscles get broken down and rebuilt), making them stronger and more resilient. As a result, the mind and body adapt so that you become better at coping with stress.
- Exercise makes us more socially active. I keep espousing the importance of making connections and exercise can help you connect with other people. It boosts confidence and motivation, and often provides opportunities to meet people.
- You feel more in control. Exercise gives you a feeling of self-mastery because you initiate the action and therefore experience exercise as a predictable and controllable form of stress. Running has helped my anxiety because it has taught me to control my breathing. When a panic attack begins, I am more able to slow my breathing instead of thinking ‘oh my god, I can’t breathe!’ which helps me calm down.
- Exercise boosts your motivation. When you become physically active, you start to see yourself as active in other areas of your life. You begin to see what you can change and how you can reconnect with friends and activities you used to enjoy. You no longer see yourself as a passive recipient of the problems and sufferings heaped upon you.
- It distracts you. It’s difficult to pay a lot of attention to negative thoughts when you need to be aware of your movement and surroundings. Exercise – especially exercise which demands a degree of concentration – provides you with respite, taking you out of your harmful thought patterns.
- It improves self-esteem. Exercise tackles self-esteem from both a neurochemical and a psychological perspective. When you do something that makes you feel better, like committing to regular exercise, you value yourself more. If you set yourself fitness goals, your self-esteem is boosted when you achieve or surpass them.
- It creates a sense of stability. Having a fitness routine gives your life rhythm and provides a good foundation for mental health. For this reason, it is an excellent way to prevent mental health problems. You can increase the sense of stability by sticking to a schedule and exercising with another person or as part of a group.
- Exercise increases our cognitive abilities. This is particularly the case for sports which rely heavily on learning and developing skills, but any exercise will improve your ability to learn. Better cognitive function means it’s easier to implement other strategies to improve your mental health, such as CBT techniques.
- It gives you focus. Not only can exercise improve your concentration (related to the previous point), but it provides something in your life which you can directly influence. Even if every other aspect of your life is a disaster, you can focus on your fitness. It can provide you with a purpose.
- Exercise alters your brain chemistry. Did you think I’d leave this one out? It elevates serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, all of which affect mood. This makes exercise a potent treatment for depression, as well as other mental illnesses – but remember my caveat at the beginning of this post and don’t assume it’s a miracle cure for everyone.