We’ve all heard about just how important exercise is not only for your physical health, but also (and far more significantly), how important it is for your own sense of mental well being. Yet just what type of exercise is the best, natural remedy against mental illness and all of its negative affects?
Before I get into the details of this entry lets take a look at some of the reasons as to why exercise can be helpful in combating anxiety and depression:
- It can serve as a distraction from our daily worries by forcing us to focus on our external reality and the task at hand, rather than the negative, internal thoughts present in our minds.
- Endorphins, chemicals that are released by the brain and are circulated throughout the body ‘improve natural immunity and reduce the perception of pain’, and additionally, could stimulate ‘the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which may directly improve mood’.
- Other changes that it exercising induces in the brain include ‘neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being’.
- It is also a way in which we can healthily handle the challenging obstacles that make themselves evident in our lives, ‘instead of resorting to alcohol, drugs, or other negative behaviors that ultimately only make your symptoms worse’.
- The Hyperthermic Model suggests that ‘people with higher self-esteem take greater pride in their bodies, so they continue to exercise, thereby maintaining their feelings of wellbeing’.
So without a shadow of a doubt, by forcing yourself to do some form of physical activity on a regular basis, you are doing yourself, and your mind the world of good!
Which form of exercise, and with what intensity, is the best for you and your specific mental needs?
Does an uncompromising weight resistance session that pushes you to your limits meet your desire for contentment? Or does a meandering swim around the pool do more for your peace of mind? Alternatively a gentle, mindful jog around your local neighbourhood might sound the most appealing to you.
The truth is there is no single exercise, whether it is strength or cardiovascular focused, that suits every person out there. It all comes down to not only how much stress you endure on a daily basis but also what kind of activities bring you the most clarity and sense of inner peace.
So without further ado, lets begin with the benefits of…
For those who may be new to/struggle with partaking in regular exercise, and want something on a mild to moderate scale of intensity, this may be the best option for you. By going for a slow paced run for about 5-10 minutes for instance, you can do something that doesn’t require you to gasp for breath and have sweat pour down your forehead while still getting the benefits of the activity. Some psychologists even suggest that a 10-minute walk may be just as good as a 45-minute workout!
In fact moderate exercise is advantageous in that you can keep in shape without fatiguing yourself – you do not need an athlete’s physique or their gruelling workout schedule to get the mental benefits that come with this form of exercise!
And this is only the short term reward! From running to hiking to gardening to dancing, these are all activities which can be carried out in a natural environment, where you can feel the wind brush against your face and hear the birds sing to each other in the trees.
While it is not imperative that you do cardiovascular activities outside,clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis makes the claim that ‘decaying trees can help reduce anxiety because these plants emit chemicals to slow down the process of their decay,’ not to mention that being around the natural world has been proven to have a calming affect on the mind.
Additionally, a recent study has suggested that after a period of about 6 months, aerobically fit adults will have received advantages in several ways when it comes to their overall sense of contentment.On a scientific level, doing anything aerobic in nature increases the blood-flow and oxygen to the brain – this physiologic reactivity has positive effects on the several regions of the organ in question. This includes the ‘limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation’.
While there is some debate going on as to whether aerobic exercise is just as, if not more beneficial for recipients than antidepressants, ( that is for a whole other article!) there is no doubt that it does the world of good for you, cognitively speaking.
However, what does the scientific community have to say about…
Unfortunately the answer is not as satisfactory as would be desired.
This is because researchers have had ‘difficulty finding a lot of high quality research on strength training alone for mental health issues’ which they believe is the result of most studies on mental health and exercise using ‘ general exercise’ – a term which is usually reserved for moderate intensity cardio. Strength training has been neglected as a result.
This is partly down to the difficulties of animal testing when it comes getting rodents to perform any form of strength training– aerobic exercise is as simple as restricting or allowing a running wheel for the rodent to use. Yet trying to come up with a method to enable them to carry weights without causing unnecessary harm to said animal is a little more tricky!
However, there is evidence to support that, in some areas at least, putting your all into lifting those weights at the gym has similar advantageous effects to doing cardio. Firstly there is the simple fact that, for some people, myself included, pushing themselves to a fatigued state brings them more of a sense of clarity than a moderate run around the park would do.
Most significantly however, the one aspect where it does seem to be equal or superior to aerobic training is in one respect – improved memory. Seven randomized controlled studies showed that when older adults( a demographic of society who are at risk of having a failing memory) performed resistance training over a determined period of time, they received positive effects on their ability to perform memory related tasks as a result.
Yet it must be noted that, in a study that compared the two types of exercises, doing weight training ‘only slightly improved the mental well being of people with an anxiety disorder’. The same article also asserts that strength training alone has low to moderate effects on cognition in older adults. Unfortunately, the same cannot be affirmed in the case of depression. The same report conducted 18 training studies examining the effect resistance training in persons with symptoms of depression – it had mixed results to say the least. Some people received a positive effect from it and others did not.
As the report itself summarises pretty adequately, there is a ‘complex network of neurophysiological adaptations that occur with resistance training participation that directly and indirectly effect mental processes’ ; this explains the mixed success rates in strength training’s effect on an individuals mental well being.
There is also an intriguing perspective that strength training is something that should come to us naturally, as it did many years ago, before modern technology came along and made our lives a lot easier. Back then we did not have the option to be idle – we had to be physically f in order to survive! Is this a solid argument or the outdated conjectures of someone whose mind is stuck in the past? I’ll let you decide on that one!
Interestingly, this all culminates into the question of whether the whether strength training is effective on those who actually know why they are depressed, as picked up on in this insightful article.
So which form of exercise is better?
Now I do not claim myself to be an expert, but it is clear from the evidence above that while weight training has its benefits, it is aerobic exercise that has the slight edge when it comes to being advantageous towards someones mental well being. Even if the competition is not completely fair due to the lack of scientific evidence of the former.
All else failing you could combine aerobic and resistance exercise via circuit training -in this way, you get the best of both worlds!
Remember, as with the case with any mental disorder, it is wise to set yourself small, achievable goals and build up from there! The last thing you want is to fall at the first hurdle – its a common theme amongst us neurotics. We know deep down what we’re capable of and so we aim high, forgetting that while this is an admirable mindset to have, failure can suck us back into that vicious cycle of self loathing and despondency!
Don’t let depression win! Get fit – but do so at your pace!
To end this entry, I leave you with this quote from Michaelis, which affirms that no matter what form of exercise you choose , whether it be aerobic or resistance training or both , you are very likely to benefit from it in the long run :
‘The body is the mind and the mind is the body. When you take care of yourself, you are helping the whole system’
What kind of exercise do you prefer? Do you lean towards strength or cardiovascular training? Or perhaps, like me, you prefer to intertwine the two. Whatever your view, feel free to leave a comment below. Let others know of not only what works for you, but of your ideas and approach towards training your body and mind in general!
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here