The body moves, the mind gets stronger: physical activity as a way to improve mental health

Bella Meki, author of The Run: How It Saved My Life, shared with her readers: “I once lived a life almost entirely dominated by anxiety, obsessive thoughts, and paralyzing fear. I spent years looking for something that would set me free, and finally found it – it turned out to be not some kind of medicine or therapy at all (although they helped me). It was a run. Running gave me the feeling that the world around me is full of hope; he allowed me to feel the independence and the hidden powers in me that I didn’t know about before. There are many reasons why physical activity is considered a way to help mental health – it improves mood and sleep, and relieves stress. I myself noticed that cardio exercises can use up some of the adrenaline caused by stress. My panic attacks stopped, there were fewer obsessive thoughts, I managed to get rid of the feeling of doom.

Although the stigma associated with mental illness has faded in recent years, the services set up to provide care are still dysfunctional and underfunded. Therefore, for some, the healing power of physical activity can be a real revelation – although it is still necessary to consider that exercise alone cannot solve mental health problems or even make life easier for those who live with serious illnesses.

A recent study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry supported the theory that physical activity is an effective depression prevention strategy. (Although it also adds that “physical activity may protect against depression, and/or depression may lead to decreased physical activity.”)

The link between exercise and mental health has been established for a long time. In 1769, the Scottish physician William Buchan wrote that “of all the causes that tend to keep a man’s life short and miserable, none has a greater influence than the lack of proper exercise.” But it is only now that this idea has become widespread.

According to one theory, exercise has a positive effect on the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in the mechanisms of formation of emotions. According to Dr Brandon Stubbs, Head of NHS Physical Therapy and Mental Health Specialist, “The hippocampus shrinks in mental illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mild cognitive impairment and dementia.” It was found that just 10 minutes of light exercise has a short-term positive effect on the hippocampus, and 12 weeks of regular exercise will have a long-term positive effect on it.

However, despite the oft-cited statistics that one in four people are at risk of mental illness, and despite the knowledge that exercise can help prevent this, many people are in no rush to get active. NHS England 2018 data showed that only 66% of men and 58% of women aged 19 and over followed the recommendation of 2,5 hours of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week.

This probably suggests that many people still find exercise boring. Although our perception of exercise is shaped in childhood, Public Health England statistics from 2017 showed that by the last year of primary school, only 17% of children were completing the recommended amount of daily exercise.

In adulthood, people often sacrifice exercise, justifying themselves with a lack of time or money, and sometimes simply stating: “this is not for me.” In today’s world, our attention is drawn to other things.

According to Dr. Sarah Vohra, consultant psychiatrist and writer, many of her clients have a general trend. Syndromes of anxiety and mild depression are observed in many young people, and if you ask what they are most often busy with, the answer is always short: instead of walking in the fresh air, they spend time behind the screens, and their real relationships are replaced by virtual ones.

The fact that people spend more and more time online instead of real life may contribute to the perception of the brain as an abstract entity, divorced from the body. Damon Young, in his book How to Think About Exercise, writes that we often see physical and mental stress as conflicting. Not because we have too little time or energy, but because our existence has become divided into two parts. However, exercise gives us the opportunity to train both the body and the mind at the same time.

As psychiatrist Kimberly Wilson noted, there are also some specialists who tend to treat the body and the mind separately. According to him, mental health professions basically operate on the principle that the only thing worth paying attention to is what is going on in a person’s head. We idealized the brain, and the body began to be perceived as just something that moves the brain in space. We do not think or value our body and brain as a single organism. But in fact, there can be no question of health, if you care only about one and do not take into account the other.

According to Wybarr Cregan-Reid, author of Footnotes: How Running Makes Us Human, it will take a lot of time and work to convince people that exercise is indeed an effective way to improve a person’s mental health. According to him, for a long time, ignorance about the vast possibilities of the positive impact of physical exercises on the mental component prevailed among people. Now the public is gradually becoming more aware, as hardly a week goes by without new data or new research being published on the relationship of certain types of physical activity to mental health. But it will take some time before society is convinced that getting out of the four walls into fresh air is a wonderful cure for many modern diseases.

So how do you convince people that physical activity can actually have a beneficial effect on the psyche? One possible tactic that professionals could use is to offer discounted gym memberships as an adjunct to medications and therapies. Persuading people to walk more often—going outside during daylight hours, being around other people, trees, and nature—is also an option, but it can work if you talk about it over and over again. After all, most likely, people will not want to continue to spend time on physical activity if they do not feel better from the first day.

On the other hand, for people who are in an extremely difficult mental state, the proposal to go out and take a walk may sound at least ridiculous. People who are in the grip of anxiety or depression may simply not feel up to going to the gym alone or with a group of strangers. In such a situation, joint activities with friends, such as jogging or cycling, can help.

One possible solution is the Parkrun movement. It’s a free scheme, invented by Paul Sinton-Hewitt, in which people run 5 km every week – for free, for themselves, without focusing on who runs how fast and who has what kind of shoes. In 2018, Glasgow Caledonian University conducted a study of more than 8000 people, 89% of whom said that parkrun had a positive effect on their mood and mental health.

There is another scheme aimed at helping the most vulnerable members of society. In 2012, Running Charity was established in the UK to help young people who are homeless or disadvantaged, many of whom struggle with mental health issues. The co-founder of this organization, Alex Eagle, says: “Many of our young people live in really chaotic environments and often feel completely powerless. It happens that they put so much effort to find a job or a place to live, but their efforts are still in vain. And by running or exercising, they may feel like they’re getting back in shape. There is a kind of justice and freedom to it that the homeless are too often denied socially. When our movement members first achieve what they thought was impossible—some people run 5K for the first time, others endure an entire ultramarathon—their worldview changes in an extraordinary way. When you achieve something that your inner voice thought was impossible, it changes the way you perceive yourself.”

“I still can’t figure out why my anxiety subsides the moment I lace up my shoes and go for a run, but I guess it’s not an exaggeration to say that running saved my life. And most of all, I was surprised by this myself, ”concluded Bella Meki.

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