Managing Your Mental Health, Part 3 – Exercise

I think a lot of people are scared or put off by the idea of exercise from an early age, while some kids love and enjoy sport there are a lot who don’t, but they are still dragged outside on cold, wet days to run around a muddy field. 

This can have a huge impact on kids, they can feel embarrassed, and it can reduce their levels of self-esteem; it also means that they carry that negative image of exercise into adult life, which is when we need physical activity the most.

Even as we get older the images of exercise and fitness are of slim, muscular, good-looking people who dwell in gymnasiums that many people are too intimidated to enter.  To some it’s the world of perfect looking people.

I haven’t been to a gym for a very long time, so things might have changed, however the images haven’t; look at all the sports and outdoor company’s adverts, do they really reflect broader society?  All I see is people doing extreme sports, hanging off cliffs or running up mountains, and yes, they’re all slim and toned.

Social media can also be filled with these images and videos, the problem with these images is that they can set an unrealistic target, we might start and then realise that it’s a bigger challenge than we thought, and we get demoralised, or it can seem so far away that we don’t even bother trying.  At the end of the day do we really need to reach those levels to benefit from exercise? 

The answer is no, the important thing is that everyone should do some form of exercise as often as possible.

The benefits to our physical health are well documented, but how does it help improve your mental health?

  • When we are in stressful situations we are in fight or flight, and this produces Adrenaline (a neurotransmitter that prepares your body for danger) and Cortisol (the body’s main stress hormone, which controls your mood, motivation, and fear), being in this state for long periods of time can cause an excess of these, exercise can help reduce their levels.
  • Exercise releases feel-good neurotransmitters such as Endorphins which give you energy.
  • Seeing improvements in your physical health and setting and achieving goals (if realistic) can give you self-confidence and improve your self-esteem.
  • Blood-flow to the brain is increased which is cleansing and nourishing for the brain.
  • Exercise that involves more complex movements or actions can help to focus your mind away from your stress and help you to feel calmer.
  • It can help you connect with others, anxiety and depression can make you feel isolated, so it can be good way to socialise with other people.
  • Exercising outside has been proven to be more beneficial than exercising indoors because we are more connected to nature.

Now you know the benefits, the next step is to find the type of exercise that works best for you; there are so many types of exercise that there is literally something for everybody irrespective of your age and ability.

There are also several things to think about before you take the plunge.

  • It must be fun; another image of exercise is pain, people pushing themselves to the limits to achieve their goal.  Now, this may be fun to certain people, but it doesn’t have to be like that for everyone because then it’s not enjoyable.
  • Think about your ability; if you currently do very little exercise, then start with something simple and progress as your fitness levels increase.  If you push too hard too soon then you will probably get frustrated quickly and give up, or worst still, injure yourself.
  • You also need to think about your physical health, do you have any health conditions that you need to consider or any physical disabilities?  It doesn’t mean you can’t exercise; it simply means you may need some extra help and guidance, or some more adapted equipment.
  • If you do less strenuous exercise, then you may need to do it for a longer period to really see the benefits.
  • Don’t rush out and buy all the kit.  The only bit of kit that I would recommend getting is some good quality footwear (running shoes or walking boots/shoes), going for a long walk in flip-flops can cause damage to your leg muscles and tendons.  When I started running, I had a relatively decent pair of trainers but then I wore swim shorts and t-shirts or rugby tops that I already had, as I progressed, I started to add to my kit especially for the colder/wet weather.
  • If it’s a sport that does need specific equipment, can you borrow or rent it first?  If you get into it, then you can buy your own.
  • If you want to join a team or a club, make sure they have a level that works for you, you don’t want to be surrounded by intense, overly serious people if you’re a beginner, or there to socialise and have a bit of fun.
  • If you do join a club and don’t like the people, there are plenty of other clubs to join, so don’t let it put you off exercising.
  • You may try a few different exercise types before you find the one that works for you, so don’t be put off if what you try doesn’t benefit you.
  • If, like me, you struggle with social anxiety then there are still options you can do by yourself.
  • Use training apps or exercise challenges to help keep you motivated; I use a company called Race At Your Pace; where you can choose a distance you want to run, walk, swim or cycle in a month and if you achieve your target you get a medal (I’m a sucker for a bit of running bling!).  I found this really helps me during the colder months when the warm, cosy sofa is just too tempting.

I’d also recommend being aware that exercise does have its potential problems as well; it can be addictive, and you can end up putting pressure on yourself to a point that it no longer becomes enjoyable.

I’m all for pushing yourself, and if you want to set the bar high then go for it, but make sure you manage it properly and be prepared for the ups and downs.  I’ve reached a level where I can now run marathons and I want to push myself to do longer distances, however recently I’ve struggled to run at a level I’m happy with and I’ve become angry at myself and disillusioned, and this is when running has no longer become fun for me.

You must remember that there is a lot going on in your life and that will have an impact on what you can do; if you’re under stress you are probably have time pressures, feeling tired, and even exhausted, so trying to push yourself physically can make things worse, so I’ll save my best bit of advice or last.

Make sure you are listening to your body; if you’re feeling tired sometimes a burst of exercise can give you energy, but if that doesn’t work then it may mean you need to ease back, it doesn’t mean stop altogether, it just means you may need to do a little bit less. 

I’ve struggled more with my anxiety and depression recently and I thought pushing myself to run would help, but it didn’t, in fact it made things worse, and I started having panic attacks while I was running and then became angry because I was failing, I can run marathons so why was I finding it so hard to do 10km?

I’ve decided to take a break from running for a bit (I’ve done it before), but it doesn’t mean I stop exercising, I’m just doing something that fits my current mental state, like walking or Pilates.  It goes back to my last blog on acceptance!

So, I’ll set you a challenge to start exercising; find something you enjoy, go for it, and most importantly persevere; learning any new habit takes time but when your mind sees the benefits you’ll want to keep going.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

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