According to the Government website and the economic case for dealing with mental health concerns more efficiently, mental health problems are the largest cause of disability in the UK, contributing up to 22.8% of the total. The wider economic costs of mental illness in England have been estimated at £105.2 billion each year.
It’s not that exercise is going to make mental health problems disappear, and indeed different people suffer from mental illness for different reasons, sometimes meaning exercise is not a viable option. However, where it is possible, exercise has been shown to be a powerful support in regaining perspective, reducing stress, supporting people with mental health issues and improving overall wellbeing, even in fairly extreme circumstances.
When Sharon Morrison, author of Even the Eyebrows? was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time, she had already found the link between caring for her body through a tough time to help her physically and emotionally, religiously adhering to a routine of reflexology and massage throughout chemotherapy.
However, she says: “I also decided to carry on jogging. I didn’t go mad, my body wouldn’t let me anyway, and initially I was constantly out of breath then, halfway through my treatment, jogging became easier. Yes, the chemo made me feel awful again, but being fitter helped me manage the physical and mental pressures of dealing with breast cancer second time around.”
On another note, stress seems to be an unavoidable part of modern life, and not in the good fight/flight way that we’re so often told about in the days of cavemen. Physical activity is known to increase feel-good neurotransmitters in the brain, according to the Mayo Clinic – it’s why people who like running tend to get addicted to it (annoying and perplexing for those of us who haven’t quite broken that threshold yet, but an explanation nonetheless). As a result, it can reduce stress, make stress easier to manage and lead to a deeper sense of relaxation.
Similarly, according to mental health charity MIND, 2.6 in 100 people in the UK suffer from depression at any given time, but once again, according to an article on healthista.com, exercise is one of the most successful treatments for it. It increases levels of feel-good chemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine that people suffering from depression have lower levels of, and as a result can prove as effective as medication (although obviously it’s advisable to speak to a professional rather than self prescribing treatment).
Population Services International reported that anxiety is the most common mental health issue in women across the world, affecting one third globally. In addition to reducing muscle tension and lowering blood pressure and heart rate, exercise is known to put you into a more relaxed state of mind.
Exercise also helps us to deal with difficult emotions like grief, heartache, loss and fear because endorphins and levels of serotonin in the brain are increased, making it easier to feel better about ourselves even if the negative feelings are still on our minds. Exercise is even said to be able to help prevent cognitive decline, with The Alzheimer’s Association saying that engaging in physical activity improves focus, planning and thinking skills.
Helpfully, while we’re all always able to find excuses, and while gyms and personal trainers are all very well, exercise is something that doesn’t have to cost a lot of money, with bodyweight exercises and parks readily available, and walking proving one of the most effective and highly recommended forms of exercise available, strengthening the heart and increasing overall fitness. At Bailiffscourt for example, their Surf and Turf Fitness Retreat shows you how to incorporate the beach and the outdoors into your routine.
The big point is that while exercise doesn’t make all our worries go away, it does help us to maintain perspective and build on positive feelings to help manage the negative ones. Where once upon a time phrases like ‘man up’, ‘buck up’ and ‘chin up’ may have been deemed appropriate, as a society we are now much more aware of the crippling impact of mental health problems, and if exercise and looking after our bodies can help to stem the deluge of depression, anxiety, stress and other mental health issues, then quite simply it isn’t something that we can afford to ignore.
We will leave you with a quote that you have probably heard before, but it illustrates the point nicely – when asked what most surprised him about humanity, the Dalai Lama said: “Man surprised me most about humanity. Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived.”
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