Are you feeling down? Do you want to feel better?
Mental health has become very topical in recent times and it is no surprise. Due to modern technology, a life of convenience – often known as sitting disease is upon us and as a result we have less to do physically in our daily lives – contributing to our obesity epidemic. Washing clothes now consists of pushing a button. We never have to collect or chop firewood anymore while footing turf is a thing of the past as gas and electricity heat our homes at the switch of a button. Even farmers pitching bales into a hay shed is no longer required as technology takes a strangle hold over every facet of modern life. Even walking to meet a friend is no longer required due to social media.
Some have replaced their lack of daily physical exertion with exercise classes or participation in sports groups – many haven’t. We weren’t born to sit on a sofa. Simultaneously we decry the huge shortage of support to our mental health service and with good reason.
An obesity epidemic is upon is. A study in 2006 reported that if one is obese, they are 25% more likely to suffer from anxiety or depression (Simon et al., 2006). Additionally, those who are overweight and or under-exercised may develop various psychological issues from being uncomfortable in their own skin to various forms of mental illness such as social physique anxiety, eating disorders, exercise obsession (OCD) and body dis-morphic disorder. In fact psychologists are now inundated with clients looking for help with their levels of unhappiness and depression in general society.
Others struggle with pressure to meet their huge life expectations garnered through peer pressure and projections of peer perfection through social media. Being just a “normal” kid is never enough any more as adolescents really struggle to find their way through their “unsure of themselves” teenage years. We were never more connected to each other through technology, yet socially so many feel disconnected.
Our depression and anxiety rates are growing arm in arm with our obesity levels at about 0.5% per annum (Kessler et al., 2005). Depression and anxiety rates currently lie at about 20% of the population and the services are not there in the volume they are needed.
So what is the link between exercise and depression?
There are a few mechanisms for this effect. How do you feel after you do a good workout? Tired? Yes but something else is also happening.
When you exercise, your brain releases a chemical called seratonin – a good mood juice, that seeps through your blood stream and into all your working muscles, helping them to relax. Some may relate to this by how they feel after a good session of swimming when they feel very relaxed. In fact swimming is one of the better exercises for seratonin release as every muscle in the body is worked during a swim session.
Exercise also regulates the working of the thyroid gland; The thyroid gland controls metabolic rate and if it is not working properly, can cause you to experience various symptoms. If it is under-active, you will feel sluggish and lethargic, may put on weight, and feel depressed. If overactive, one could suffer from mania and sometimes insomnia.
A recent study (Biddle, 2009) showed that 33 studies have proven exercise to have positive affects on mood & alleviate depression . The comprehensive study confirmed that Exercise
- Improves psychological/emotional health.
- Reduces/alleviates depression, stress and anxiety.
- Reduces negative mood and enhances positive mood.
- Enhances self-esteem, confidence and sleep.
- Improves quality of life & social relationships.
- Increases serotonin levels in the brain.
- Regulates thyroid gland.
In fact a study by Craft in 2005 showed that exercising moderately 5 times per week reduced depression levels by over 75% in clinically depressed patients. We were not born to sit on a sofa and mope about our perceived hardships. Exercise is the antidote to stress and anxiety but the pharmacological firms don’t want us to know this. Stress and anxiety for them equals money.
In fact a mental health survey of health professionals conducted in 2008 showed that 42% of doctors believed that exercise is a valid and effective treatment for depression. Yet, only 5% of doctors actually use it.
So if you are feeling low, get out of the house, take the dog for a walk or go for a cycle – maybe even to a friends house for a chat or better still, arrange a fun physical activity with a friend. You will be surprised how it will make you feel.
Exercise however, won’t fix all mental health issues as some problems may be caused by a traumatic event or experience. This can only be fixed by talking about it. That could be a friend, neighbour, aunt or a professional service counsellor or psychologist. A problem shared is a problem halved.
Open Your Mind
Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.
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