Exercise: The foundation stone for robust mental health

Graeme CowanUncategorized

Exercise: The foundation of health

Nobody doubts the benefits of exercise for physical health. What isn’t as widely known or discussed is how essential moderate exercise is to our mental wellbeing.  I created an online survey which sought to find out what health strategies helped people who have experienced an episode of depression or anxiety to bounce back from setbacks. I took a holistic approach, and asked people to evaluate the effectiveness of strategies such as exercise, good rest, good nutrition, emotional support from family, friends, and support groups, fulfilling work, hobbies, charity work, as well as traditional approaches like psychological counselling and medication. In all, over 60 strategies were evaluated, and 4080 respondents were asked to rate those they had tried. Exercise was in the top three.

Research shows that a 30 minute brisk walk (or equivalent) significantly improves your mood after 2, 4, 8, and 12 hours compared to those that don’t exercise (Mayo Clinic 2008). Exercise also boosts energy, confidence, and sexual desirability (American Fitness, 19 (6), 32-36).

We can’t control the slings and arrows that come our way on a daily basis, but we can control our daily habits. Incorporating moderate exercise into our day can inoculate us from the prolonged effects of a setback.

Why don’t people exercise?

People typically nominate two main reasons:

  • I don’t feel like it – this is particularly applicable to people who are discouraged and/or depressed.
  • I don’t have the time – our relentless 24/7 life usually means there are a thousand things to say “yes” to. An essential element of a thriving life is saying “no” to the trivial many, so that you can say “yes” to the vital few. Exercise is definitely in the latter category.

Principles to make exercise central to your life

Find something you enjoy – To sustain regular exercise, it is important to do something that you find pleasant. The traffic in gyms are 30-50% higher in January than other times of the year, as people are suddenly inspired to get fit and lose weight. By March, they have returned to normal levels. It’s not wise to sign up for a gym if you hate them!

I like walking because it allows me to get amongst nature, it’s free, and you can do it anyplace and anytime. Some people keep a walking journal so that they can write down the new things they see, hear, and smell each day. This keeps you present. If you prefer swimming, dancing, cycling, boot camps, or hiring a personal trainer, then do that. To experience the mood enhancement qualities of exercise it is recommended to do 30 minutes, 6 days per week. Although people with depression often don’t feel like exercising, it is important to go against that inclination.

Have modest goals – many people believe that to get the benefits of exercise you have to spend 2 hours in the gym or run a marathon. As highlighted above, this is simply not true. If you have been doing no exercise, start with 15 minutes per day. If you are catatonic and spending all day in bed, just getting out to the letter box each day is a good start that you can build on. Build activity gradually.

Introduce rituals – As highlighted with the gym traffic trends above, changing behaviour requires more than intention. To make it stick, it is essential to introduce daily rituals that prompt the behaviour. For example, rituals could include:

  • Laying your clothes out each night when you go to bed so that when you wake up you can dress without thinking and head off.
  • As you brush your teeth each morning, put on a pedometer. When you brush at night, take it off and record the steps taken.
  • Set a regular time to walk with a friend or work colleagues. Consider walking meetings.
  • Consider using a free smart phone app like FitnessPal, which allows you to monitor your exercise and your calorie consumption.

Begin it now.