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The Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity

Photo shows a pyramid with the words fitness, spirit, body and mind in order from bottom to top.

May is both Physical Activity and Mental Health Awareness Month for Robins Air Force Base. Now we all know that exercise keeps our bodies healthy, however, we often talk about the mind and body as though they are completely separate - they aren't. The mind can’t function at full capacity unless your body is working properly - but it also works the other way - the state of your mind affects your body. (courtesy photo)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. --

May is both Physical Activity and Mental Health Awareness Month for Robins Air Force Base. Now we all know that exercise keeps our bodies healthy, however, we often talk about the mind and body as though they are completely separate - they aren't. The mind can’t function at full capacity unless your body is working properly - but it also works the other way - the state of your mind affects your body.        

Why bother with exercise?

To work properly, your body needs regular exercise - and most of us feel pretty good when we are active.  In fact, until the last 100 years or so, you had to be quite active just to live your everyday life. Now much of what we used to do manually is being done by machines and technology. We drive cars, so we walk less, vacuum cleaners and dish washers make cleaning easy, and washing and drying clothes are done by a machine. At work it’s totally feasible for many people to not even have to move around in the office - it’s enough to sit at the computer. It also doesn’t help that modern convenient high-energy foods make us put on too much weight – or that, for most people food has never been cheaper or easier to buy.

So how can you start to get more active, day to day? I can already hear what you’re thinking! You may be turned off by the word “exercise” because:  

  • I’ve never done it
  • I wasn’t good at sports at school
  • I would feel silly
  • Other people would make fun of me
  • It won’t help unless it hurts - ‘No pain, no gain’ 
  • It’s sweaty and uncomfortable
  • I’m too tired
  • I would rather do something else
  • It’s expensive
  • I think it will make me feel worse
  • I don’t have anyone to do it with
  • I don’t know where, when or how to start

Well guess what? It doesn't have to be about running around a track or working out in a gym. It can just be about being more active each day – perhaps just walking more, or taking the stairs rather than the elevator or escalator. If medical problems stop you from doing one thing, there are probably other things that you can do instead so, ask your Doctor what you CAN do not just what you CAN’T do.

What happens if you don’t do very much?

We all know that some people seem to get away with doing very little and still live to a ripe old age – but most of us aren’t wired that way. Broadly speaking, the less you do, the more likely you are to end up with:

  • Depression
  • Tension/ worry/ stress

 If you keep active, you are:

  • Less likely to be depressed, anxious or tense
  • More likely to feel good about yourself
  • More likely to concentrate and focus better
  • More likely to sleep better
  • More likely to cope with cravings and withdrawal symptoms if you try to give up a habit, such as smoking or alcohol
  • More likely to be able to keep mobile and independent as you get older
  • Less likely to have problems with memory and dementia.

Don’t worry about not doing enough at first, just get started by building a bit more physical activity into your daily life now because even a small change can boost your morale, give you a sense of achievement and help you to feel better with yourself. You can build more activity in later as you become accustomed to physical activity and start to notice the positive changes it is bringing to your physical and mental health.

Ask yourself, what could work for me?

To be sustainable long term, activity should:

  • Be enjoyable – if you don’t know what you might enjoy, try a few different things
  • Help you to feel more competent, or capable. Gardening or do it yourself projects can do this, as well getting you more active.
  • Give you a sense of control over your life – that you have choices you can make (so it isn’t helpful if you start to feel that you have to exercise). The sense that you are looking after yourself can also feel good.
  • Help you escape from the pressures of life for a while.
  • Be shared. The companionship involved can be just as important as the physical activity. 

So, why does physical activity help with mental health?

There are several possibilities:

  • Historically most people in the world have had to keep active to get food, water and shelter. This involves a moderate level of activity and seems to make us feel good. We may be built – or “hard wired” - to enjoy a certain amount of exercise. Harder exercise (perhaps needed to fight or flight from danger) seems to be linked to feelings of stress, perhaps because it is needed for escaping from danger.     
  • Exercise seems to have an effect on certain chemicals in the brain, like dopamine and serotonin. Brain cells use these chemicals to communicate with each other, so they affect your mood and thinking.
  • Exercise can stimulate other chemicals in the brain called “brain derived neurotrophic factors.” These help new brain cells to grow and develop. Moderate exercise seems to work better than vigorous exercise.
  • Exercise seems to reduce harmful changes in the brain caused by stress.

How much exercise is enough for me?

  • First – any exercise is better than none, refer to what we mentioned earlier about just getting started.
  • BUT a moderate level of exercise seems to work best.
  • This is roughly equivalent to walking fast, but being able to talk to someone at the same time.
  • You need to do about 30 minutes of moderate physical exercise on at least five days of every week. This can be done in one 30 minute session or broken up into shorter 10 or 15 minute sessions. 
  • This can not only lower the risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer, but also seems to help depression – so you get a double benefit.
  • Don’t start suddenly - build more physical activity into your life gradually, in small steps.

When should I exercise?

As regularly as you can, there will be days when you just don’t feel like exercise – you may feel tired or be too busy or anxious about something but, if you keep to your routine and exercise at times like this, you will almost certainly feel better because, if you are tired, exercise tends to give you energy. If you are worried, it can take your mind off your concerns for a while. So, even if you can’t “exercise”, a 15-minute walk can help you clear your mind and relax. You may also find it helpful to listen to music at the same time.

It’s best not to do too much in the evening. Although being active will generally help you sleep, if you exercise late in the evening, you may find it difficult to get settled down.

Eating versus Physical Activity for energy levels

Caffeine and high energy snacks will boost your energy quickly - but after an hour or so you will probably feel more tired than you did before, however, a short walk will boost your energy level for much longer.

Physical Activity and Coping

If you are active you will probably find it easier to deal with life’s daily problems and challenges. If those problems stop you from being active regularly, it’s worth remembering that finding time to be physically active may actually help you to deal with the problems. Physical activity can also help you cope better by improving how you feel about yourself. 

How well does Physical Activity work for depression?

For mild depression, physical activity can be as good as antidepressants or psychological treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy. While it can certainly be harder to get active when you are depressed, being active lifts your mood and gives you a sense of being in control and in touch with other people. In fact the American Medical Association and the Academy of Sports Medicine have partnered to ensure that medical providers incorporate physical activity into their treatment plans by establishing the “Exercise is Medicine” Campaign.    

Let’s wrap it up and get to the basics, how do I get started???? 

Any physical activity needs to be something that you can do regularly. But lots of things can stop you, especially if you feel depressed. You may feel that you:

  • Don't have the energy
  • Don’t feel confident enough
  • Don’t know anybody to exercise with
  • Don’t have the right clothes
  • Can’t afford it
  • Just aren’t the ‘exercise or sporty type’
  • Won't feel any different for doing it.

Physical activity can be about playing a sport or doing hard-core exercise – if you want that- but, for most people, it is just about moving more and sitting around less. It doesn’t have to be hard – just try to do something every day. 

Some things aren't expensive – walking is free and jogging just needs a pair of trainers. If you have a bike already, try cycling to work – you may even save some money. 

Don’t overdo it!  

If you haven’t been active for a while, doing too much when you start can make you more tired – particularly if you also have a health problem, including depression, which already makes you tired. Whatever you choose to do, start with something easy. Even if it is just walking round the block and building up gradually by just doing a minute or two more each day. Try to do something most days, even if you feel tired.

You can start with something as simple as trying to simply increase the number of steps that you do every day. Start by determining how many you do already – you can use a pedometer to show you how many steps you take every day or you could keep a diary for a few days of how long you spend doing active things. Then set yourself some goals to increase either your steps or the time being spent being physically active. Make sure that your goals are:

S – Specific – What do you want to achieve?
M – Measurable – How you will know when you’ve achieved your goal?
A – Achievable – Make sure that achieving your goal is realistic.
R – Relevant – The goal should be important to you.
T - Time-based – Set yourself a time limit to achieve your goals.

They need to be things you can see yourself doing and take pride in, so that you feel good about yourself. 

Remember

Nobody is perfect and everyone has to start somewhere. You will have setbacks when you can’t meet a short term goal, or just feel too tired to do anything. Recognize it when it happens, but don’t worry about it. Tomorrow is another day and short term setbacks don’t matter in the bigger picture of your longer-term goals. And, if you need to, ask someone else to give you a hand. Contacting the Robins AFB Health Promotions Manager, Kevin Fallon, an ACSM certified Exercise Physiologist, at kevin.g.fallon.civ@mail.mil  is a good place to get started when looking to get more active.