Where’s Your Head At? The Importance of Exercise for Good Mental Health

We all know exercise is important for our physical health. But did you know it is also beneficial for our mental health as well? In conjunction with Movember (an initiative for male health including mental health and suicide prevention) it’s a timely reminder that the evidence supports movement and exercise for improving mental health. And not just for males!

Mental health includes the emotional, psychological and social well-being of an individual. It can affect how we think, feel and act in day-to-day life. It influences how we handle a stressful situation, our relationships with others, and how we make critical decisions. It’s forever changing, influenced by life experiences, family history or biological factors including our brain chemistry. This is where exercise can be beneficial.

There is a strong relationship between physical activity and mental health; however the relationship is likely to bidirectional, meaning that physical inactivity may be the cause and consequence of poor mental health. There are multiple mechanisms that account for the brain-enhancing effects of exercise; including changes in neuroinflammation, improved vascularization and antioxidation, energy adaptation as well as regulating neurotrophic factors and neurotransmitters.

Neurotransmitters send messages between the nerves and the brain. Dopamine, noradrenaline, and serotonin are the three major neurotransmitters known to be modulated by exercise.  All of these play a part in the state of our mood. Studies show that low levels of these neurotransmitters (particularly of serotonin) may predispose healthy individuals to suboptimal physical and mental functioning. These three chemicals are often how pharmacology treats low mood states and depression. Artificial drugs have been designed to produce the same stimulus to the brain, bringing about feelings of happiness and energy. However, the exact same feeling can be stimulated naturally with exercise, and without all the nasty side effects.

Why is this important?

Australia has a high incidence of depression, anxiety and substance use disorders. A study by the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing indicated that almost half (45%) of the population between the ages of 16-85 years will experience a mental disorder. In Australia, mental disorders are the third largest source of disease burden after cancers and cardiovascular disease, but the largest source of disability burden with $9 billion spent on mental health in 2015-16.

In a series of recent studies, negative emotions were associated with increased disability due to mental and physical disorders, increased incidence of depression, increased suicide and increased mortality up to two decades later. Positive emotions protected against these outcomes.

So how much exercise do you need to do?

Standard recommendations still apply to those suffering from some form of mental health problem.  These guidelines indicate that half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or around 150 minutes a week, is best. Studies have also shown improvements in mood and memory with brisk walking for one hour, twice a week.

Don’t feel like exercising?

Completely understandable! Sometimes it’s hard to find the motivation to do anything, let alone exercise. The hardest step is the first one, so here are some suggestions on how to overcome the barriers:

  • Get going with mates: Bite the bullet the next time a friend suggests going for a walk or for a kick of the footy. Or even make the suggestion yourself. Exercise doesn’t have to be hard or completed alone.Think of something you enjoy doing and contact a supportive friend to help you get started.
  • Start small: You will see recommendations on how much exercise you need each day to meet the guidelines, and it’s often a daunting prospect. You don’t have to do it all at once, or on your first try. Going for a small walk in your lunch break, spending ten minutes outside with the kids when you get home, or even using the stairs instead of the lift can start the process.
  • Ask for help: If you have contemplated doing a bit more exercise but aren’t sure where to start, contact us at Physiotas to talk to one of our Exercise Physiologists. If you are in the Launceston area you can call us on 6334 0622, or if you are on the North West Coast the number to call is 6424 7511.Other options include talking with friends and family, your GP, Headspace or the links provided in the Movember page: https://au.movember.com/mens-health/mental-health.

If you’re really struggling:

Exercise isn’t a cure all. It is part of a wide spanning process to click things into gear. Don’t be afraid to discuss things with your GP, as treatment options are available to manage a range of conditions. Psychological therapy and antidepressant medication isn’t a sign of weakness. They are a pathway to making you a better version of yourself.

This month the team at Physiotas have been participating in Movember. The guys have been growing moustaches (some of them quite impressively!), while the girls have been on the move to help raise awareness around Men’s Health. If you would like to help us raise funds for Movember you can check out our fundraising page by clicking here.

About the Author:

Robert Talbot is an Exercise Physiologist for Physiotas on the North West Coast.

Robert studied a bachelor of Exercise Science, followed by Professional Honours in Exercise Physiology, at the University of Tasmania, completing his studies in 2017. He enjoys the amazing outcomes that exercise and activity can provide when done with the correct instruction and guidance.  He has a  specific interest in the role exercise has in the improvement of musculoskeletal, cardio-respiratory and metabolic health conditions.

 Rob has experience in fitness instruction, and in strength and conditioning coaching for football, basketball and netball teams.  He enjoys arranging personalised, graded activity programs for individual clients and running group exercise programs and he has a wealth of exercise knowledge ready for any level.