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Fitness And Mental Health

Thursday, 21 July 2016

This is an article by Helen Traynor

We all know that physical fitness can make us feel and look physically great. It fights obesity, it strengthens our bodies, it gets out heart and lungs working at optimum...basically, exercise and physical fitness is a truly wonderful way to get physically healthy. But did you know that regular exercise can also improve your mental health? It’s true! And, in an era which is seeing more of us than ever succumb to mental health disorders, a mind-healing workout has never been more apposite! Here are just a few of the ways in which exercise can aid your mental health:

Exercise Boosts Your Mood

Many people think of exercise as an exhausting, miserable slog. However, the fact is that exercise can seriously improve your mood. When we work out, chemicals called ‘endorphins’ are released. Endorphins are natural opioids, which your body releases to combat pain and encourage you to perform physically demanding feats. They promote a sense of euphoria and wellbeing which can last for significant amounts of time. It also releases dopamine, the ‘reward’ chemical which we get when we eat something delicious, have sex, and things like that. Studies have shown that exercise can alleviate the symptoms of clinical depression (largely due to the endorphin effect). Exercise-induced endorphins have also been touted as a method of reducing the symptoms of drug withdrawal. As the endorphin and dopamine system are what is often ‘hijacked’ by drugs, it’s thought that providing what the brain craves through natural rather than artificial means may help to reduce cravings. But this is only the tip of the iceberg - the effects of exercise upon our mental health run much deeper…

Exercise Improves Self-Confidence

Lots of us exercise in order to look good, and looking good in our own eyes does have a tangible effect upon our mental health. Those with positive body image are less likely to be depressed, less likely to be anxious, and exponentially less likely to develop eating disorders. However, often our body image and the way we actually look are reasonably unrelated - it often depends upon other factors in our life, such as self-esteem, the pressure we put upon ourselves, and the height of our expectations. Exercise can certainly fulful the rather shallow criteria of making us look good - it tones us up and helps us to lose weight, which lends us a societally acceptable physique. This definitely helps mental health. However, it’s probably the sense of achievement more than any actual alteration in looks which brings about the most positive mental health benefits. Knowing that we can make a marked improvement to our bodies through our own efforts does fantastic things for our sense of self-worth. And a good sense of self-worth is vital for good mental health.

Exercise ‘Tones’ Your Brain

When you exercise regularly, you quickly start to feel the improvements in your body. However, what you may not realise is that these bodily improvements are also having an impact upon your brain. Your brain is a physical organ. It relies upon blood, nutrients, oxygen and so forth just as much as your body does. If your body is not working particularly well, then your brain will suffer just as much as any other organ. However, if you exercise regularly, your cardiovascular system, your immune system, and most other aspects of your body will be working at their full potential. Your brain will feel the benefits of this with enhanced blood, oxygen, and nutrient flow. What is more, it won’t have to work as hard to get your organs etc in working order, meaning that it will be generally less tired, and more able to work efficiently. All in all, this means that your brain will be at its full potential, and more able to fight off the niggling growth of mental illness. If you combine exercise with a good diet, then the benefits for your mental health will be even more evident!

Exercise Relieves Stress

Through a combination of all of the above, combined with the cathartic relief of ‘letting off steam’, exercise has been proven to alleviate the symptoms of stress, cheering us up and allowing us to think more clearly about things. If you’re having a bad day, there are few better remedies than heading to the gym or hitting the running track! As chronic stress is a serious issue for both mental and physical health, the benefits of this can not be denied!