Can exercise really improve your mental health?

Physical activity may be considered by some to be all about improving your strength, flexibility and aerobic fitness. It has long been accepted, however, that exercise can have great benefits for mental health conditions, including mild to moderate depression. Numerous studies have shown that individuals who exercise regularly experience less symptoms of anxiety and depression than those who do not engage in physical activity.  In fact, The Black Dog Institute have quoted studies where 16 weeks of regular exercise was equally effective in the treatment of depression as taking antidepressant medication (with none of the unpleasant side effects).

There are a variety of ways in which exercise can help to prevent and treat depression, including:

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– Elevating mood through improved self confidence and fitness

– Improved sleep and therefore less reliance on medication

– Increased energy levels

– Forming friendships or feeling like part of group or community

– Being accountable to someone or somewhere can provide a sense of purpose. Having a commitment to be somewhere or meet someone, such as a group exercise class, is a great way to stay on track with a new exercise program

– Chemical changes within the brain. Exercise affects serotonin, endorphins and stress hormones.

What kind of exercise is best for depression?

The old saying rings true that the best kind of exercise is the one you enjoy. In the case of someone suffering from depression, however, they may find it hard to get enjoyment from much at all and starting an exercise program may seem daunting. Even starting with a simple 20-30 minute walk each day has been proven to have a positive effect on the symptoms of depression

An exercise physiologist is a great place to start. Exercise physiologists are university trained specialists who can prescribe an exercise program tailored to an individuals’ health conditions and abilities.

Exercise programs that may benefit an individual with depression include:

– Walking or running:

In addition to the great aerobic benefits, just getting outdoors in the sunlight and the fresh air can have a positive effect on mood.

– Group exercise:

The socialisation aspect of group exercise can be so beneficial when someone is experiencing feeling of being alone and isolated. Whether it is actively forming new friendships through an exercise class or simply feeling like part of a group, participating in an exercise class is a great way to stay motivated.

– Yoga / Pilates:

Whilst the two disciplines of exercise are essentially quite different, they share a certain mindfulness and focus on breath work, which can be extremely beneficial for lowering stress levels. Both yoga and pilates can be tailored to an individual’s own needs and it is important to find a qualified instructor to guide you through your exercise program.

– Private exercise sessions:

For some, the idea of a group setting or starting out alone may seem too daunting. A great solution is to find a qualified exercise practitioner who can take you through your exercise program. Find the person that feels right for you, who you can trust and feel confident with. A huge benefit of private exercise sessions is that you are held accountable to another individual and they will notice if you cancel or fail to show at an appointment!

– Resistance / strength training:

Resistance training can have a wonderful effect on mental health as improvement can easily be measured and provide a real sense of satisfaction. It is important to start slowly and to seek advice from a trained professional before starting a resistance training program to ensure you are using correct technique to avoid injuries.

– Incidental physical activity:

Exercise doesn’t have to always be a scheduled event. Try taking the stairs instead of the lift, park your car a block away to make yourself walk, or simply do five push ups every time you walk in to your bedroom. There is no one-size solution and something is always better than nothing.

While the benefits of exercise on treating depression are proven, it is important to recognise that depression in a serious mental illness and may need other interventions in order to treat it. If you or someone you know may be suffering from depression, it is always worth speaking to your health professional about your symptoms and to learn about what resources are available to you.