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Mental Health and Exercise: What is the link?

May 17, 2021

Being able to optimise the whole body’s health is imperative in leading a fulfilled life, yet confronting, learning about and promoting mental wellness is often not prioritised. Maybe it is because we cannot physically see our mind; emotions, moods, stress and those alike however, are certainly felt and experienced creating positive or non-desired mental health states.

What causes mental wellness to be poor?

Anxiety impacts 1 in every 6 Australian’s and is the leading mental health concern worldwide. Depression, post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), bipolar, eating disorders among others, contribute to altered psychological and physiological states within the body. Sensations, belief systems and thought patterns become heightened and therefore invite the body to respond; physiologically, the heart rate and rate of breathing might increase, making you feel like you are overstimulated, overwhelmed and/or ready to run. Psychologically, negative self talk, poor emotional regulation and a sense of separation from self can also be felt and observed. There isn’t one causation factor for mental illness, but past exposure to traumatic events and experiences, continual over or under stimulation as well as biological and physiological changes in body can be contributing factors.

How does this impact overall health?

Let’s talk about mental health in two categories; acute and chronic. Acute mental health is the onset of distressing mental health symptoms requiring immediate treatment and care; this can be a brand new occurrence or a worsening of a long term condition. Chronic mental health is when symptoms present for longer than usual periods of time, often greater than 3-6months. When experiencing either acute or chronic mental illness, the body’s internal physiology  is exposed to constant changes within the nervous system which effects ones ability to naturally regulate vital functions within an optimal capacity. When the body is under this type of stress, other illness and co-morbidities become more prevalent such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), asthma and lower back pain. Those with mental illness are also 2-3 x more likely to be effected by Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus and are at a 4 x greater risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) [1]

Where does exercise come in?

Research shows that different conditions respond best to certain exercise stimulus, however largely aerobic exercise, such as walking, swimming, running and other ‘huff/puff’ inducing activities, as well as resistance training, body weight or weight based activity, positively aids in impacting mood, emotional regulation, stress states, self-efficacy and overall enjoyment and satisfaction [1,8,9,10].

When you undertake exercise, there are a number of things that happen inside your body. The rate of your heart can increase, bringing greater blood flow to areas of the body such as your extremities (arms and legs) as well as to your brain, providing increases in energy through greater oxygen uptake, and overall positive functioning due to the utilisation and release of certain chemical hormones such as serotonin, which aids in emotional processing and dopamine, which supports memory and motor development. 

Another major factor that plays a large role is the autonomic nervous system, which houses two important subsystems. The sympathetic nervous system is the fight/flight response that can be felt in states of stress, accelerating the heart rate and making you feel like you are on over drive. For those that live with anxiety, this can become a constant state of being, therefore adopting practices that develop whole body awareness such as Yoga, Tai Chi and Qi Gong, invite the parasympathetic nervous system to come in to play; this system down regulates the body, lowers the heart rate and prepares the body for rest, digestion and sleep. 

Seeing an Accredited Exercise Physiologist, someone who specialises in exercise movement prescription and the physiological processes of different conditions (including mental illnesses), is a great place to start if you are unsure which type of exercise is best for you.

Facts and Tips: 

  • Fact: Through research, exercise, aerobic in particular, has been found to show increases and improvement in neural cell development (neurogenesis) within the hippocampus (an area of the brain which is responsible for learning and memory)! [5,6]
 
  • Tip: Start small with your exercise; 5-10mins a day is enough to start to build a routine, gradually increasing to your desired goal!
 
  • Fact: Participating in group based exercise has been shown to positively boost enjoyment, self-efficacy, and sense of community via building social support system [10]
     
  • Tip: To start with, think about exercise as just movement. If you say to yourself, ‘lets just get some movement in!’, you might be more accepting of just popping out to the garden, going for a quick walk or moving your body by doing something that you love e.g. hiking, swimming, climbing, yoga etc. 
 
  • Fact: 12% of cases of depression could be avoided by participating in just ONE hour of exercise per week [8]. 

So what is the link?

Linking the knowledge of how the body works, how your body works and what can positively impact it, is vital in optimising overall health and wellbeing. Being able to educate, listen and learn about what you are experiencing builds autonomy and ownership over your own health, therefore growing confidence in knowing what you need, when you need it and how much.

Although we see the profound benefits of exercise on mental health outcomes, it is important to understand, like many things, that it will impact each individual differently. Therefore, it is highly beneficial that you seek medical advice before commencing exercise and surround yourself with a team of supportive health professionals such as a psychologist, good general health practitioner and an accredited exercise physiologist. When you have support from a team that understands and has your best interests at heart, your wellness has the best chance to positively grow. 

For more information, there is a great downloadable eBook on Exercise and Mental Health available over at https://exerciseright.com.au/mental-health/ 

  • Guidelines and descriptions for specific conditions can be found in future articles.

Samantha Cameron

Accredited Exercise Physiologist, Certified Yoga 575hrs Teacher

References: 
  1. Exercise and Mental Health eBook, ESSA, 2018
  1. Di Liegro, C. M., Schiera, G., Proia, P., & Di Liegro, I. (2019). Physical Activity and Brain Health. Genes, 10(9), 720. https://doi.org/10.3390/genes10090720
  1. Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. Primary care companion to the Journal of clinical psychiatry, 8(2), 106. https://doi.org/10.4088/pcc.v08n0208a
  2. Heijnen, S., Hommel, B., Kibele, A., & Colzato, L. S. (2016). Neuromodulation of Aerobic Exercise-A Review. Frontiers in psychology, 6, 1890. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01890
  1. Kirk I. Erickson, Michelle W. Voss, et. Al Feb 2011, 108 (7) 3017-3022; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015950108 Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory
  1. Gosnell, S. N., Meyer, M. J., Jennings, C., Ramirez, D., Schmidt, J., Oldham, J., & Salas, R. (2020). Hippocampal Volume in Psychiatric Diagnoses: Should Psychiatry Biomarker Research Account for Comorbidities? Chronic Stress. https://doi.org/10.1177/2470547020906799
  1. Harvey, S. B., Øverland, S., Hatch, S. L., Wessely, S., Mykletun, A., & Hotopf, M. (2018). Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. The American journal of psychiatry, 175(1), 28–36. https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2017.16111223
  1. How to look after your mental health using exercise, https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/publications/how-to-using-exercise 
  1. S. Rosenbaum, A. Tiedemann, C. Sherrington, J. Curtis, P.B. Ward, dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jsams.2014.11.161 2014; Physical activity interventions for people with mental illness: A systematic review and meta-analysis, 
  1. Irakli Mania, M.D. Harun Evcimen, M.D. Maju Mathews, M.D., M.R.C.Psych. Department of Psychiatry Drexel University College of Medicine Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 2006, Exercise for mental health 

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