The fact that exercise improves your physical health is a no-brainer, everyone knows how much being physically active can help fight heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and practically any major disease you can think of.
But if you went to your GP with depression or insomnia or panic attacks and she or he told you to go for a run you might be forgiven for thinking they had not listened properly.
Can exercise really help with your mental health too? The answer is an emphatic yes. Study after study has shown that, in fact, exercise is as effective a treatment for mild to moderate depression as antidepressant medication, and that it can also be very effective in treating anxiety, OCD, ADHD, PTSD and trauma.
One theory is that whatever benefits your physical wellbeing will also benefit your mental health because they are in fact the same thing, and it is all just health. Our counsellors often report that clients have physical symptoms caused by depression or anxiety and mental health symptoms caused by physical illnesses. So it is perhaps time to have a rethink about the whole mental health/physical health definitions. We often talk about the mind and body as though they are completely separate things – but they aren’t really. Your mind is in your body and the two are inextricably linked in thousands of ways. Your body can’t function well unless your mind is working properly and vice versa.
So, while you might dread the gym or the thought of wearing Lycra in public, doing some exercise you enjoy or even just walking up the stairs a few extra times a day or going for a 10-minute walk can boost your mood significantly. And this is not just down to the ‘global’ benefits of increased physical fitness, but also because exercise specifically benefits the brain. The endorphins released by aerobic activity not only make you feel better, but they also help you concentrate and maintain mental sharpness. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline such as Alzheimers.
And if you make exercise a regular part of your life (rather than just exercising until your improve your fitness) it can also:
- boost self esteem;
- help you with sleeping difficulties;
- increase your heart rate which gives you more energy;
- boost your immune system which makes you more resilient;
- and help you reduce the affects of stress and better cope with life’s challenges.
All of which is very convincing, but if you still haven’t got out of your chair or reached for your trainers this could be because taking the first step to doing more exercise can be very difficult, especially if you have depression or anxiety.
Here are the most common obstacles to exercise and how to overcome them.
The Problem: Feeling rubbish about yourself
Feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth are well-known symptoms of depression, and if you are your own worst critic constantly putting yourself and your efforts down it can be very hard to get started at anything.
Now is the time to start thinking differently about your body. Even if you are overweight, getting on a bit, or not as fit as you used to be, your body is still one of your greatest assets and you need to be kinder to it so that together you can reap the benefits of exercise. Whatever your weight, age or fitness level, there will be other people as unfit (or more so) than you. If you are taking a class make sure it is with people at varying or the same level as you. And when you start reaching even the most modest of fitness goals (running for two minutes, cycling for 10, or walking for five for example) it will give you a massive boost of body confidence.
The Problem: Exhaustion
If you feel tired or stressed all the time it is only natural to feel as though working out will just make it worse and make you more tired and stressed. But, even though it sounds counter-intuitive, studies show that regular exercise can dramatically increase your energy levels and reduce tiredness.
Start with a five-minute walk. Chances are you’ll have walked for more than five minutes without realising it and be able to increase the length of your walk without too much difficulty or effort.
The Problem: Busy Life Syndrome
The thought of adding one more thing to your ‘to do’ list can feel overwhelming, however much good you know it will do you in the long run. If you have children, a demanding job, exams to cram for, or an already crammed diary, it can feel impossible to fit in a swim, a game of tennis or a zumba class.
This is where you have to remind yourself of the research showing that physical activity helps sharpen your memory and your brain to help you achieve all your other tasks more effectively and efficiently. If you start to think of physical activity as a priority to de-stress your life, and it becomes easier to fit fitness time in.
The Problem: Hopelessness
There is no such thing as being too unfit to get fit. There is literally no person alive that cannot benefit from a little more exercise. Exercise puts you in shape, and you don’t have to be anywhere near ‘in shape’ to get started.
If all exercise looks painful and difficult to you, start slowly with small amounts of low-impact movement, such as cycling, walking or if your prefer to stay indoors, marching on the spot or knee lifts a few minutes each other day, and build up from there.
The Problem: Pain
Of course if you feel pain when working out or have any condition that causes you discomfort or limits your mobility when you exercise, don’t ignore it.
Consult your GP and discuss safe ways for you to exercise. And try swimming or exercising in water, which reduces resistance therefore joint or muscle pain.
The Problem: No Motivation
Heaven knows it’s hard to make yourself exercise at the best of times. But if you are depressed, anxious, stressed or have social anxiety or relational or emotional problems, it can feel impossible. This leads to a downward Catch 22 style spiral of: “I know I should, but I feel low so I don’t, and then I feel guilty and even worse about myself, which leads to an even lower mood”.
Set very low, achievable goals and choose to do them at the time of day when you have the highest energy levels whether that’s when you first get up, after lunch or at the weekend. And remember exercise doesn’t have to look like exercise it could just be gardening or cleaning the house with more gusto than usual or avoiding escalators and lifts, throwing a Frisbee in the park or dancing to your favourite songs.
If you feel you would like to talk about how you can incorporate exercise into helping you to support yourself through dealing with any difficulties you are experiencing, or work on your body confidence and self-esteem issues then therapy could be a good option for you. We have a team of counsellors and psychotherapists who will be able to help. Just call 020 8673 4545 or email [email protected] and they will be able to help you find you the right therapist for you.