Exercise makes you happy
For years, I have incorporated some form of exercise into my daily routine. No matter how much time I have in the day, it has become an essential component to my life for more reasons than simply getting fit. It has brought me a greater sense of connection with myself, a positive outlook and an inner confidence which remains long after the exercise is over.
Exercise saved me. Before having my kids and becoming a therapist I was a busy lawyer, and had little regard for my body. It came second to the activity in my head that was on overdrive. After maternity leave kicked in and I had spent time away from the intellectual frenzy of my job I suffered a mild depression and found that it didn’t lift because I couldn’t distract myself with work anymore. Being with my babies was always rewarding and special but it didn’t remove the dull ache that had settled in the back of my mind.
I decided to take up running on a whim and it was a magical experience. At first I ran in increments of 15 minutes a day and with time this grew. I tried other exercise like cycling and aerobics. Yoga also came into my life at this time and it became a safe place to go to reconnect and ground myself especially if I felt anxious and unsettled. My depression lifted. I had empowered and healed myself through movement.
My story is not unique. Many people experience positive mental health benefits from incorporating movement into their daily lives. Results from a straw poll of people I asked came back with similar findings. People reported feeling ‘lighter’ and ‘more centred’, others said that it ‘made them mentally and physically stronger and got them through post-natal depression’. It ‘gives a more positive outlook everyday’ and a ‘sense of achievement and growth after every workout’. It helps ‘to feel more balanced, improves sleep and deal better with stress.’ All of these personal experiences point to the same thing. Exercise is great for our mental health.
My anecdotal findings are backed up by research which shows that exercise can help treat mild to moderate depression. A study in 2005 found that if we do fast walking 35 minutes a day 5 times a week, or 60 minutes a day 3 times a week mild to moderate depression symptoms improve.
So how does exercise beat depression? It stimulates endorphins, feel good chemicals which circulate around the body. They boost our immune system and lower our perception of pain. They may also improve mood. The other theory is that exercise stimulates neurotransmitters in our brain naturally occurring chemicals such as, norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine which can directly lift our mood and buffer our mental and physical stress response.
In 2016, a Swedish study showed that during exercise the muscles begin to act like the liver or kidneys and start detoxing the body, they produce an enzyme which clears out a molecule linked to depression. The study also demonstrates why people who do not exercise end up feeling sluggish, depressed and are more prone to disease.
GPs can currently prescribe exercise for depression, but are far more likely to prescribe anti-depressants. There were 53 million prescriptions were issued for antidepressants in England alone last year, nearly double the number prescribed a decade ago. It seems that prescribing more drugs does nothing to help beat the epidemic of depression. It’s like sticking a plaster on a festering wound.
My approach to healing depression is about firstly preventing it and otherwise managing and healing it. I view the mind and body as a connected system which must work in harmony if is to work at all. The body is wonderful teacher, and a friend if we spend time connecting with it and listening to it.
It’s not only the medical model to blame. Most of the time messages we receive from popular culture and society are to compartmentalise body from mind. In our achievement-oriented culture mind is valued over body. The body is often used as an object which we use to further the agenda of the mind as it responds to stimuli from outside, whether it is telling us to eat less, or eat more, move less or move more depending on what the stimuli is.
So, consider how wonderful and powerful a shift might occur If we were to consciously connect with the body and shake things up in our life by moving and using the momentum we create to consciously improve our daily mood?
- Find a group of people e.g. a running group or even call a friend to join you. That way you can encourage each other to do it when resistance and lethargy set in.
- Find exercise that works for you. Listen to your body. If running is hurting you then try other forms of movement, e.g. cycling or dance or a brisk long walk
- Do some mindful stretching like Pilates or yoga to help you ease out the muscle tension to further reduce stress, open your heart and connect with yourself.
- Get out and connect with nature on a sensory level when you exercise. Notice trees, flowers, feel the fresh air on your skin.
- If you can’t go out, then find exercise to do indoors either at the gym or at home even; there are plenty of routines on the internet – just start simply.
- Treat your body with respect and keep an eye on what happens with your body sensations, feelings and tension. Notice the connection between movement and mood.