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Young woman walking exercise on a brown street with white shoes exercisingYoung woman walking exercise on a brown street with white shoes exercising

Thoughts

Exercise is always good for our mental health and wellbeing… or is it?

13th May, 2024

As doctors, we are always taught to be wary of statements in medicine and the wider media that claim ‘x’ always leads to ‘y’, because the people we treat and their bodies they inhabit are all so very different.

Mental Health Awareness Week is incredibly important, as it reminds us that we, as a society, not only need to be aware of others who may be struggling, but to also observe our own behaviours and habits. This is to ensure we are getting the best from our lives and that there is enough fuel in the tank to enjoy a healthy balance. To separate fact from fiction, I have set out some pointers on how to boost those feel-good hormones, whether you are in the office or at home.

Exercise and Movement

  • Exercise releases endorphins (our feel-good hormones) which is why people feel good after exercising. This is also known as runner’s high.
  • Exercise releases cortisol which helps us deal with stress and anxiety, especially when those calls and meetings are stacked high.
  • Exercise can help promote better sleep, which in turn improves our mental health and ability to cope in stressful situations. Get those zeds in as they are critical for all areas of your health. Invest in a meditation or sleep app, they are fabulous ways to chill out and switch off.
  • Studies have shown that exercise can not only prevent periods of depression but also be a very powerful treatment for those of us who do have depression. You must also speak to your medical practitioner if you feel you aren’t coping and need advice – don’t try to cope alone.

Exercise should work for you

As with all things in life, we need to approach exercise in moderation. Social media perpetuates images of the ‘perfect body’, and get-fit-quick videos using exercise to make us feel we need to look a certain way have become commonplace. But far from making us happy, exercise positioned in this way can actually harm our health – mental and physical. People can become obsessed with exercising, leading to an ‘exercise addiction’ and when they aren’t seeing the results they expect or can’t keep up with the latest fad training program, it can lead to low mood, anxiety and feelings of worthlessness. Exercise can also become a detrimental part of an eating disorder to control weight. You must make exercise and movement right for you. It shouldn’t feel competitive or pressured. Make it a personal treat towards your health and wellbeing.

Exercise isn’t ‘always’ good for our mental health but done in the right way it can be an extremely powerful tool.

Exercise isn’t ‘always’ good for our mental health, but done in the right way it can be an extremely powerful tool for improving our wellbeing and our mental health. So let’s get back to basics.

How should we define exercise?

In basic terms, it’s physical activity that improves our fitness and overall wellbeing. So why, when we think of exercise, does it tend to conjure up images of sweating, Lycra-clad bodies in impersonal gyms or that person on Instagram who lives ‘the perfect life’ on green juice and burpees… I don’t know about you but that doesn’t fill me with joy and knocks my self-esteem down a few notches. It’s the complete opposite of good mental health and wellbeing. If exercise is any physical activity, maybe we need to stay away from social media and look elsewhere for our inspiration? Enter my two daughters. They’re healthy, happy and generally care-free and they happen to be physically active every day. Yes, they have structured exercises in the form of PE at school and swimming lessons, but most of the time they are playing. Games of chase, skipping in the garden, climbing in the park or dancing in the kitchen.

So why not view exercise as being whatever physical activity you enjoy? That could be walking (with or without the dog), dancing or even gardening. But can we boost the effects of exercise on our wellbeing even more? Back to the kids. Where are they happiest? Well, it’s pretty simple. They’re at their happiest in the same places I’m happiest…outdoors. What about with who? Again, it’s simple, with the people they love and care about.

So why not view exercise as being whatever physical activity you enjoy?

Taking these lessons learnt from my kids, the care-free, happy wildlings that they are, what is my advice to anyone looking to use exercise to support their mental health and wellbeing?

  1. Just move. If it makes your heart rate go up then it’s perfect, be it running, dancing around your kitchen or walking. A lunchtime stroll during work is always a great tonic to recharge and get some head space. It’s so important even when working from home to take breaks and get some fresh air. Stretch your body and get the blood flowing.
  2. Do something you enjoy that makes you smile. If you’re doing something you enjoy, not only will you be more likely to keep doing it but it will make you happy and positively impact your mental health.
  3. Do it with others if you can. If you can make exercise sociable with people you love, those endorphins should be soaring.
  4. Rest. As good as moving is, getting adequate rest between is equally as important for your physical health and subsequently your mental health.

Whatever your takeaway is from this, remember it is not a race and your mental wellbeing is important. Movement is key but making sure it works for you is paramount.

Authors

Guest Author: Kimberley Shuttlewood

Orthopedic Registrar - Royal Devon University Healthcare NHS Foundation Trust

Read Bio