It’s Not Just Physical
The importance of exercise for physical and mental wellbeing
Depression is a complex disorder, caused by a combination of biological, social and psychological factors. How people are impacted by depression is different for each person. One thing that is known about this condition is that it is increasing. In fact, the World Health Organisation estimates that there are more than 264 million people affected by depression worldwide.
There has been a multitude of studies conducted that show that there is a link to exercise helping with depression. In fact, a recent study found that “being physically active has the potential to neutralise the added risk of future episodes [of depression] in individuals who are genetically vulnerable.” What this means is that even if you are genetically prone to depression, doing around 35 minutes a day of exercise can help reduce the risk of getting depressed. This is particularly important as we all struggle to make sense of COVID, physical distancing and isolation.
The converse is also true. Exercise and Sports Science Australia report, “When healthy people become inactive, levels of depression can increase after as little as seven days.”
Exercise is a powerful depression fighter for several reasons. It promotes feelings of calm and wellbeing, by releasing endorphins that energise your spirit and make you feel good. It can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feed depression.
Exercise can also have a profound impact on anxiety and stress. It relieves tension, boosts physical and mental energy, and enhances well-being through the release of endorphins. Anything that gets you moving can help.
So, how do you get started, especially when you are struggling with the symptoms of anxiety and depression? The following steps can help you with your exercise and mental wellbeing journey:
Identify what you enjoy doing. Figure out what type of physical activities you enjoy doing and when and how you most like to do them. For instance, are you more likely to exercise in the morning or the evening? Would you benefit from joining an exercise group? Try a few things out to find what suits you best.
Get your mental health professional’s support. Make sure you talk to your doctor or mental health professional for guidance and support. Discuss an exercise program or physical activity routine and how it fits into your overall treatment plan.
Set reasonable goals. You don’t need to be running a marathon by the end of the first month. Be realistic about what you are able to do and begin gradually so you can incorporate it into your routine. Consistency is key.
Obstacles to exercise
So now you know the benefits of exercise and how to get started. But taking that first step is still easier said than done. Exercise obstacles are very real — particularly when you’re also struggling with mental health. Here are some common barriers and how you can get past them.
Feeling exhausted. When you’re tired or stressed, it feels like working out will just make it worse. But the truth is that physical activity is a powerful way to help you feel more energised. Even if you feel exhausted, try a short walk or routine. There are many 7-minute exercise apps out there that could help provide you with the boost you need.
Feeling overwhelmed. When you’re stressed or depressed, the thought of adding another obligation can seem overwhelming. Try to think of ways you can incorporate physical exercise into your routine.
Feeling bad about yourself. Are you your own worst critic? It’s time to try a new way of thinking about your body. No matter your weight, age or fitness level, there are others like you with the same goal of getting fit. Accomplishing even the smallest fitness goals will help you gain body confidence.
Feeling pain. You shouldn’t ignore pain, but rather do what you can when you can. Define the difference between ‘good’ pain and ‘bad’ pain. If you are finding you are experiencing ‘bad’ pain, divide your exercise into shorter, more frequent chunks of time if that helps, or try exercising in water to reduce joint or muscle discomfort.
Of course, starting out is great, but staying focused and motivated can also be a challenge. Here are some tips for keeping a routine, even if you don’t want to.
Focus on activities you enjoy. Any activity that gets you moving counts. You don’t have to spend hours in a gym or force yourself into long, monotonous workouts to experience the many benefits of exercise. Whether it’s gardening or taking a stroll around the neighbourhood can help you become more active. Completing these projects can also leave you with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Reward yourself. Part of the reward of completing an activity is how much better you’ll feel afterwards, but it always helps your motivation to promise yourself an extra treat for exercising.
Make exercise a social activity. Exercising with a friend or loved one, or even your kids, will not only make exercising more fun and enjoyable, but it can also help motivate you to stick to a workout routine. In fact, when you’re suffering from a mood disorder such as depression, the companionship can be just as important as the exercise.
Most importantly, be kind to yourself. Remember, it’s human to have bad days. Treat each day as a fresh start on the journey to achieving your fitness and mental wellbeing goals.
Note: I am not a doctor, so you should not take any of the above as professional advice. Always consult a professional before starting any exercise program. I am, however, someone who believes in the power of exercise for the benefit of both mind and body.