I’m no Ray Flynn and I am not about to be challenging Darragh Greene to a few lengths in the pool anytime soon. But I believe that being regularly active can have a profoundly positive effect on my mental health.
Let’s face it a lot of us see physical activity as something we ‘have to do’, or ‘ought to do’ for our physical health.
It’s good for our bones, our joints, and our heart. But exercise is also something with enormous positive benefits for our mental wellbeing.
Increasing numbers of studies will tell you that exercise can have a positive impact on many mental health disorders like depression and anxiety. It is also a great stress reliever, improves memory, helps us sleep, and boosts our overall mood.
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And friends I’ll let you in on a secret: no matter what your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel mentally better.
Remember Jennifer Aniston from that old TV shampoo ad? Well as she used to say: “Here comes the science bit— Concentrate!”
Exercise affects the brain in many ways. It releases natural anti depressant chemicals. It increases our heart rate, which pumps more oxygen to our brain.
It helps with the release of hormones which provide an excellent environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise also promotes brain plasticity by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in many important areas of the brain.
It has also been said that exercise can treat moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication—but without the side-effects. Now I’m not dismissing medication. It has helped me a lot. But I also understand it isn’t for everyone.
As well as releasing those natural chemicals in your brain that make you feel good, exercise can also serve as a distraction, allowing you to find some quiet time to break out of the cycle of negative thoughts that feeds depression.
Exercise is not all about being competitive or trying to be the best and when it comes to improving your mind it includes a range of activities that boosts your activity level to help you feel better.
Running, brisk walking, playing football and other fitness activities that get your heart pumping can help. But so can other physical activities such as gardening, washing your car, dog walking. Any physical activity that gets you off the couch and moving will help improve your mood.
Rob Stephen, Chairperson of mental health organisation Grow Ireland, is a keen exerciser. Speaking to this column Rob said: “I run without headphones so whilst out, I take in things around me and my mind wanders, from thinking about work or personal problems to simply savouring the nature around me, I have time completely to myself - disconnected from technology yet connected to my body and the surrounding environment.”
On the Grow Ireland website (www.grow.ie) you’ll find some useful pointers on the mental health benefits of exercise.
Beyond getting fit, exercise can have a host of positive effects on us. It can get us out of a lull, give us more confidence, help us to think more clearly.
So try and make time for it. Building regular exercise into your day gives you a better chance of being able to handle all the stressors that life throws your way.