When you’re in the depths of worry, anxiety or depression, it can be hard to focus on anything else. You can feel stuck inside your head, on a loop with no end in sight.
So how do you break free from the cycle of worrying thoughts? With mindfulness and meditation? With stress-relieving or relaxation techniques?
Yes, these things can help. However, today we’re going to tell you about another tool for your self-help kit – getting out of your head, into your body and being physically active.
It’s the exercise effect.
Physical activity is not just for maintaining our physical health and toning muscle or losing fat – moving our bodies is also key to a healthy mind.
Research shows that being physically active is strongly linked to improved mental health. Not only is it a great way to help stay mentally well, it’s also a fantastic way to relieve feelings of negativity, worry and stress – while you’re doing it, as well as afterwards.
“Exercise is a brilliant way to change our mood,” says Jean Hailes psychologist Gillian Needleman.
“The benefits of moving more extend way beyond the time we are exercising and into the rest of our day.”
Ms Needleman says that exercising for your mental health and overall wellbeing can also be an important shift in mindset.
“As women, we can sometimes exercise for our appearance, which can be a negative experience, with self-criticism and judgement as we aim for a body we think we ‘should’ have,” she says.
“Exercising for our mental wellbeing is a more gentle, loving approach. It can be an acceptance of oneself, with the goal of moving our body to shift our mind.”
Being physically active to improve your wellbeing is particularly important during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
When many of our other forms of self-care – such as spending time with friends, visiting a park or going out to a café – may be unavailable, this can make physical activity possibly more important now than ever, says Ms Needleman.
“With restrictions, financial worries, home-schooling the children, or having to work from home, we’re all trying to cope with massive changes in our lives,” she says.
“It’s no surprise that even in a pandemic, one of the things we’ve been allowed to do is go outside to exercise, and that’s because of the essential benefit it has for us all.”
It’s important to remember that although many gyms may be closed, outdoor exercise is still readily available to most of us, and we often don’t need to go far to do it.
So how does movement affect mental health? What’s the connection between body and brain?
“Moving our bodies and being physically active boosts our mood by raising our levels of ‘happy’ hormones such as serotonin,” explains Ms Needleman.
Being active is also a natural antidepressant. It lowers our levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, which often becomes elevated due to anxiety or anxious situations. Physical activity allows our muscles to relax, which in turn helps our body relax.
Plus, we sleep better, are more alert and have increased energy and stamina. What’s not to love?
When we talk about managing anxiety and depression, it’s important to know that emotions such as worry and sadness are normal, and healthy parts of being human.
“These emotions alert us to issues that trouble us,” says Ms Needleman. “The problem is when we are going over and over our difficulties and not resolving them, or when we are worrying about things that we have no power over – that’s when we need to manage our thinking and try a different approach.”
When negative feelings start to disrupt your daily life, when you start avoiding normal situations for fear of triggering uncomfortable feelings and thoughts, then you may need some help, says Ms Needleman.
“When we are talking about physical activity for mental health benefits, we are not necessarily talking about intense exercise; we can benefit from any regular movement,” she says.
“It can be a walk with a friend [a double benefit of social support and movement], a bike ride, walking the stairs, parking further from the shops ... it all adds up.”
It also does not require a complete overhaul of your daily routine. Ms Needleman suggests starting off by simply choosing one thing that will add movement in your day, then build on that until a habit forms.
“Motivation can be a challenge when you are feeling low or anxious, which is why it’s best to start small and build up,” she advises.
“It’s even better if you can do this with a friend or family member so that you can encourage each other. It’s all about small steps towards greater mental health.”
Doing any amount of physical activity is better than doing none. But researchers report that as little as 30 minutes of exercise of moderate intensity, such as brisk walking three times a week, can bring about mental health benefits.
What's more, these 30 minutes need not to be continuous; three 10-minute walks are believed to be as equally useful as one 30-minute walk.
To better protect your overall wellbeing, including your physical health, the Australian Government guidelines recommend a minimum of 2.5 hours of moderate intensity physical activity each week.
Remember: moderate intensity activities require some effort (puffing a little, but you’re still able to talk).
Ms Needleman says it’s important to note that with more severe anxiety or depression, it’s best to seek help from a medical professional.
“Being physically active is not a fix-all approach for mental health issues,” she says. “It’s beneficial as being part of an overall plan, alongside other therapies such a seeing a psychologist or taking medications, which can be vitally important too, depending on the individual.”
However, including regular moderate-intensity physical activity across a week is a great step towards preventing chronic mental health problems for those with milder symptoms
And being physically active is beneficial for our health in so many ways – mentally, emotionally, physically and even socially. It can be done by anyone, anywhere and easily used alongside these other therapies for added benefit.