The best exercises for mental health
Modern day life is awesome, everything is made for our comfort and convenience, we can work from home on our laptops, order shopping from our phones and if we do have to go out we can jump in our comfy cars and travel in style. It is amazing how technology has really advanced the human species, or has it?
With all these mod cons, one might think modern day man (or woman) to be the happiest creature alive, au contraire….
In a 2018 report, it was stated that the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates 300 million people worldwide suffer from mental health related illness. In the US alone it is reported that 40 million adults live with anxiety and/or depression, that is almost 1 in 5 people. The UK doesn’t fair much better with around 3 million reported cases. By 2020 it is predicted, by the WHO, that depression will be the second leading cause of disability in the world.
How can this be when life around us is so amazing? We have everything we need to survive and as a species, we are thriving, yet mental health is deteriorating.
Let’s look at a few possible contributing factors:
- Poor diet
- Increased usage of electronic media (Electronic Screen Syndrome)
- Lack of sleep
- Increased performance pressure (parents, education, work, family)
- Reduced family contact — kids spend more time in bedroom away from the family
- Reduced social interaction — increased use of messaging services as primary means of contact
Unfortunately there are many more potential causes, and it’s only getting worse. While most would agree life is easier overall in terms of survival (not many things try to eat us walking round the park), it seems the very conveniences that we rely on each and every day, are the very things dragging us down (mentally).
So, what can be done?
A quick trip to the doctors will probably see you walking out with a prescription for antidepressants such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, these reduce the body’s absorption of serotonin, increasing overall levels which in turn lessen the feelings of depression. This is all very good, but it’s like taking a painkiller for chronic toothache; it may ease the pain temporarily but as soon as it wears off, you’re right back where you started. Do you really want to be taking medication for the rest of your life?
What are the alternatives?
Talking is always a good place to start, sometimes just getting things off your chest can bring great relief. Get in touch with a professional, go and get everything out in the open. On a more local level, disconnect from electronics for a while and go converse with actual people. This alone can have a massive, positive impact on your psychological state. Is this enough? It can be, but you can do so much more.
Studies have shown that taking part in regular exercise is just as effective as antidepressants, if not more so, in dealing with depression. It has been suggested that people following a regular exercise program are less likely to see their depression return. Not only does exercise give you a mental boost, there are some pretty obvious physical benefits, too: weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, increased lung capacity, stronger bones and better sleep. Of course there is always the risk of exercise related injury, but on the whole it has been shown that taking part in regular exercise is much safer than long term use of SSRIs.
The mind and the body share a deep connection, if one is not working properly the other is sure to suffer. The human body is designed for movement, so while modern day living is truly amazing we should not neglect to use our bodies as nature intended; talk and interact with real people (not via computers or phones), connect with nature, and MOVE more (a walk to the fridge for another donut doesn’t count).
With that in mind here are some of our favorite exercises/ activities to help reconnect your body and mind;
Getting out for a walk is a great way to help clear your mind, get off road for some extra stimulation. My personal favorite is hiking up a munro in the Scottish highlands, but as they are not on my doorstep I have to settle for the local woods. Not only is walking an awesome, low impact (less chance of injury) form of exercise, it’s also a fantastic opportunity to reconnect with nature, both of which have been shown to have a massive impact on improving mental health.
Researchers have found that taking part in regular aerobic activities, like running, can have a meditative effect on the brain. In addition to this it is known that running triggers the release of feel good endorphins, as well as neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. Endorphins block pain and elicit feelings of euphoria while dopamine regulates the brain’s reward centre, stimulating pleasure. Serotonin is heavily linked to mood control, with lower levels relating directly to depression. Getting out for a run might be just what the doctor ordered to help clear the mind and really boost your mental health.
In a 2012 study, assessing the effects of yoga on stress and anxiety, it was reported that people noticed a significant decrease in feeling of stress and anxiety after practicing yoga. As an exercise yoga will promote the release of serotonin (happy feels), yet it has a hugely calming effect on the body and mind. As you hold each pose you will practice deep, controlled breathing which has been shown to drastically reduce feelings of stress, anxiety and depression.
For many years people thought lifting weights was reserved only for bodybuilders, in recent times that way of thinking has changed as more and more people are adding resistance training into their exercise routines. Lifting weights as part of a structured exercise program boosts your metabolism while sculpting a lean physique, it makes you stronger and can improve mobility which can, in turn, help to negate injury while performing other activities. In addition to this researchers have now found that lifting weights can lead to a significant reduction in feelings of depression, It is also thought to be highly effective in combating stress and anxiety.
So we have already seen how exercise releases all kinds of feel good chemicals into the body, what happens when you couple that with wailing on a heavy bag for half an hour? Extreme stress busting is what happens. Sometimes we just need to let go, let out all that frustration and tension, boxing is just the very thing to facilitate that desire. A recent report states that boxing is a great way to relieve stress while getting fit and building confidence, it promotes a healthy lifestyle through better dietary choices and improved sleep, which is great for self esteem and overall mental well being, and did we mention you get to punch stuff?
BRAZILIAN JIU JITSU
This one is a personal favorite. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) has surged in popularity in recent times thanks to the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) becoming more mainstream. BJJ is an extremely effective martial art where, in training, you grapple against another person. The aim is to make your opponent submit (tapout) due to a technique you have performed, this could be some form of choke hold or a variety of locks that, when applied properly, could break or seriously damage bones/ joints. While this all sounds very violent, classes are very well structured and you are taught attacks and escapes through a series of drills. Due to the physical nature of BJJ it is extremely effective in improving one’s level of fitness, and since you are trying to stop another person from choking you unconscious it is very difficult to be anywhere but in the moment, it has shown to be quite effective in improving mental health related issues. There is something else though, something that the previously mentioned exercises cannot offer; constant contact. Many people don’t get a lot of physical contact in modern day living, past the odd handshake at the office. Sometimes folks just need a good old hug, a cuddle of your mum fixed everything when you were wee and then you get too old and cool for cuddling. We’re missing out; cuddling releases a chemical called oxytocin, sometimes known as the love hormone, which is shown to influence social behaviour and emotion and is thought to be beneficial for those suffering with depression and anxiety. What has this go to do with BJJ? Well, think of grappling as cuddling on steroids; you are in constant contact with another person as you roll (grapple), oxytocin overload, add that into the feel good already chemicals released through exercise and the fact that you are 100% in the moment (you better be or you get strangled, in the nicest possible way), is it any wonder so many people are starting to take up this awesome martial art? Self defence, fitness, cuddles and a whole load of feel good, sounds like a winner to me.
What is your favorite exercise? How does it make you feel? Let us know in the comments below.
If you are struggling with mental health issues, or simply lack the motivation to start exercising get in touch with the Zenergy team and chat to one of our trained professionals, we’re here to help.