Exercise – the key to better mental health
The year 2020 may have not panned out the same way we had planned. The outbreak of the Covid – 19 has given rise to unprecedented personal and collective grief and uncertainty. Along with the lockdown and imminent economic depression, we have seen a sharp rise in number of mental health cases in India.
The lockdown has separated family members, incepted insecurities with respect to relationships or jobs and may have increased the physical strain on our bodies. The connection between our mental and physical well-being means our usually sedentary lifestyles and poor nutrition choices have only worsened mental health challenges. An uprise of mental health issues can be foreseen. While physical exercise cannot offer a replacement for counseling or therapy, here are some ways in which exercise can be an adjunct to therapy and alleviate anxiety, depression, stress and various other mental health concerns.
1) Increases sense of well-being – The most commonly known fact of exercising is that it releases our “feel – good hormones”, known as the endorphins in the brain. These hormones give us a heightened sense of happiness and satisfaction. Exercise has a ton of physical benefits some of which include; reduction in weight, bringing physical comorbidity in control, increase in sexual vigor. It also has the added advantage of giving us a sense of achievement when we complete a fitness routine or workout. The combined effect of the physical changes along with a sense of satisfaction or achievement helps improve one’s sense of well – being.
2) Reduces Stress – Exercise causes an overall increase of blood circulation in the body. The increase in body temperature followed by the relaxation of the muscles results in a certain ease of stress. The relaxation of the muscles in the body in turn causes relaxation of muscles in the brain.
Exercise also causes an increase in blood flow to the brain, which further enhances oxygen and nutrient uptake by the brain. This enhances neural activity and allows the release of nor – epinephrine. Exercise also causes an increase in heart – rate. All the above factors combined cause a decrease in stress – induced brain activity.
3) Helps with Depression and Anxiety – Because of the release of extra endorphins, exercise works really well for people having worrying and anxious thoughts. It reduces the inflammation in the brain and promotes neural growth and new activity patterns. It also serves as a distraction from negative thoughts as it forces you to concentrate on the activity, your breathing technique, repetitions, form, etc.
4) Improves Sleep– Most often, one suffering from anxiety or having too many worrying thoughts may have an altered sleep cycle. But it is suggested that exercising helps regulate the sleep pattern. The increase in blood circulation causes an increase in body temperature, which further causes relaxation of the muscles and hence makes it easier for one to fall asleep. Therefore, with a regular exercise routine it is found that one hits the bed easily and also has more sound sleep.
5) Boosts Memory – Exercise has shown to stimulate growth of new brain cells in the hippocampus (neurogenesis) which improves memory and one’s learning capacity.
6) Builds Resilience – Exercise increases one’s mental resilience to overcome challenges. This is specifically seen if you get involved in sporting activities. The ability to play a sport and further play it competitively increases the mental ability to face hardships in real time.
7) Promotes Discipline – Having a regular and fixed exercise routine in your daily schedule adds discipline to one’s life.
This being said, when you have negative thoughts looming over you, it may be easier said than done to get in some amount of exercise everyday. Here are some tips on building a sustainable exercising routine, and addressing some obstacles one may face embarking on this journey –
1) Hopelessness – You may be required to put in a little effort to motivate yourself everyday to get up and out and exercise. Once you begin with 5 minutes, you may realize you can push for another 5 and then keep pushing. Set realistic goals for your workout schedule to avoid disappointment. Keep in mind your current fitness level to achieve what you have set out for yourself. Remember to start small, but make sure you start soon! Your fitness routine can be anything you enjoy or find pleasure in; from a dance workshop to a short walk or a yoga class. Make sure you push yourself to do some form of physical activity everyday.
2) Exhausted – Remember that a few minutes of exercise can recharge you to go through the next couple of hours. So if your are having a stressful day and are finding it difficult to get through, it would be advised to go for a quick run or walk to boost your energy levels.
3) Poor sense of well–being – Do not forget that exercise has physical benefits that help improve one’s sense of well–being. This can be a motivational factor to push you to exercise.
4) Pain – If you suffering from pain from a previous injury or due to degenerative changes in the body, exercises (prescribed by your doctor) can be a safe way to take care of your pain.
5) Be comfortable, whether it is the activity you choose or the clothes you decide to exercise in. No one ever felt better doing something that was out of their comfort zone, so it is advised that you start with activities that are familiar and that you enjoy before you begin activities that are new and unfamiliar.
6) Group activities, working out with friends or joining a class not only serves as motivation to come back the next time but also serves as a distraction from your worrying thoughts. Hence it is always a good idea to have a friend/companion/colleague work out with you.
The time of the lockdown has given us access to plenty online fitness routines. These platforms can serve as incentives to build a weekly routine and also foster friendly competition between friends and family. Family workouts or couple workouts are a great way to stay motivated as the rest of your family or partner tend to push you to workout everyday, especially during this period.
7) Reward yourself: It is imperative that you reward yourself for completing a workout or meeting your fitness goals. This pushes you harder for the next day. The reward can be a cheat snack or a relaxing bubble bath.
8) Your exercise routine can comprise of aerobic activities such as a walk/jog/run, which can all be done within your apartment or building complexes. Dance classes or dance workout videos are also a great tool for your fitness regimen. You can choose from functional training to weight – training. There are a wide variety of choices you can pick from, but choose the activity that would be most suitable and comfortable for you.
9) Yoga, meditation or breathing exercises are a great way to relax the mind from distressing thoughts and can be practiced just before going to bed. This puts the mind at rest making it easier to sleep.
10) Duration – The recommended duration for exercise is 20 – 30 minutes a day and at least 150 minutes a week. Ensure you try to meet these requirements.
Dr. Sanjana Singhvi is a musculo – skeletal physiotherapist, with over five years of professional experience. She is also a certified mat pilates instructor and uses a variety of adjuncts such as dry needling, kinesio – taping and manual therapy as part of her treatment therapies.