Exercise and its Benefits for Mental Health


LIFELINES

“LifeLines is a monthly column dedicated to addressing issues of mental, behavioural, and social health. The column appears on the 1st weekend of the month, and is written by professionals in the field of social work, mental health, and community medicine”.

By Katharine Collier

It’s almost 6 months since many of us set our New Year’s Resolutions. This is a common half-way point to look back and see if we have been meeting our goals. A common resolution is to lose weight and get in better health. There many aspects of health; mental health being one of them. Most people are aware of physical health and focus on how to improve it, but fewer people focus on bettering their mental well-being. There are many simple, healthy ways to focus on and improve your mental health. One of these ways, that actually combines improving your mental and physical health, is exercise. Exercising, especially aerobic exercising, for a small amount of time each day has been shown to decrease mild to moderate depression, anxiety and stress and to increase happiness, confidence, self-image and a general sense of peace.

Depression, anxiety and stress are conditions that many people experience. Depressed feelings cause a loss of energy which may lead people to isolate themselves, which then furthers the depression. If depression becomes severe, it can cause persons to become neglectful of their obligations (e.g job responsibilities, taking care of children), as well as contribute to suicidal thoughts and actions. Similarly, anxiety can create an overwhelming feeling that makes life seem impossible and difficult to deal with. Even every-day stressors, such as meeting new people, are hard to manage with anxiety. If you are not in good mental health, handling these stressors can create a greater sense of depression and anxiety.

Being depressed, overwhelmed, stressed and anxious are mental states that most of us try to avoid, even to the point of pretending that everything is ‘fine and good’. However, just because something is pushed to the side does not mean it will go away. If we choose to deal with challenging emotions that we may face, we can become more balanced and healthy. Exercise is one way of practicing a balanced lifestyle and a healthy way to begin dealing with these conditions.

Although all exercise is good for your health, aerobic exercise has been shown to:
• Relieve stress and mental fatigue
• Provide a natural energy boost
• Improve sleep
• Lessen anger, hostility and frustration
• Lessen anxiety and feelings of mild to moderate depression
• Improve self-esteem and confidence
• Improve overall quality of life
• Provide a sense of achievement and self-control
• Improve happiness
• Decrease alcohol intake and dependence

So how do you begin? Exercise does not have to be overly rigorous to make these improvements to mental health. It’s important that you first pick an exercise that you will be able to stick with. There are many classes offered at various gyms in St. Kitts that offer everything from yoga to Zumba. Sometimes, it’s easiest to start with a walk with friends for 30 minutes, 3-5 times a week and build up from there until you are able to workout at a moderate pace for 30 minutes 5 times a week. Having a friend with you may also help improve your relationship skills and social life. Pick a time of the day that you can commit to. If you are not a morning person, go in the afternoon or evening. If you enjoy the crispness of the early morning, then a sunrise workout may be for you. Remember, this is not a competition. Exercising for your mental health is something for you to do just for you. You do not have to set competitive goals, or get ‘stressed out’ if you do not reach your fitness ideal. Just enjoy the time you are setting aside for you and allow yourself to think about what you are really feeling.

By focusing on exercise as a way to build up your mental health, you are also helping your physical health by improving your cardio strength and utilizing your muscles. Work outs are more enjoyable because you are not just focused on looking a certain way or losing weight, but paying attention to your mental health as well. Therefore, if you set a resolution to exercise, you will be getting to the benefit of both improved physical and mental health. Exercise will not solve all of your problems, and you may want to consider seeking help from a counselor or other mental health professional for issues that you might need additional support with. Although exercise cannot cure all mental health issues, it is beneficial as a part of maintaining your mental health and can help you achieve a sense of balance and wellness.

Katharine Collier, MA, LPC, LCDC