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Exercise for our declining mental health

As a nation we are becoming more aware and more understanding of mental illness. Because, sadly, it is becoming increasingly more common. We all know that exercise is good for us, but what does that actually mean? Our bodies are designed to move. If they weren’t we would look very different to what we do. The fact that our bodies need to move for our overall health means that not moving is really bad for us. The demands of our modern day society - long hours at the office and in the car, responsibilities at home, our children, social engagements - can become overwhelming, and leaves us putting exercise at the bottom of our to-do-list. We know that an inactive lifestyle can lead to chronic issues such as Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis and more. Basically, not making time for exercise makes life a whole lot harder later on, and makes your life shorter than it could have been. That means less time with loved ones. Most of us know the physical risks of being inactive, but that still isn’t enough to motivate all of us to exercise regularly. There are a whole load of other benefits that aren’t as well known - the mental benefits of exercise. Often our mental health and physical health are treated as being completely seperate. But they are definitely interrelated. These days there is the tendency to consider the act of exercising with things that have very little to do with the healthy function of our brains. We think of how we look, compare our physical appearance with others, how strong we are and how fast we can run. All of these things are great, but moving and exercising isn’t always about physical perfection. It shouldn’t be that hard. We are designed to move, and it should easily fit into our everyday routine. So how do we achieve that? Rates of anxiety and depression are at their highest recorded levels in many countries, and late year NZ had its highest suicide rate on recored. Without a doubt, modern day life is contributing to this - more social isolation, poor diets, focus on money and image, longer working hours, lack of sunlight exposure. Physical inactivity plays a major role but is often overlooked. After exercise, our mood improves and we can often look at problems in a new light. Our body and mind are not separate. Exercise creates a cascade of physiological changes in the brain that can make us feel better, think more positively, and makes us more resilient. There is more and more evidence to support that exercise is not only important for maintaining good mental health, but it can be used to treat chronic mental illness including severe mental health disorders such as psychosis and schizophrenia. In fact, more and more treatments for various mental health conditions use exercise as the first part of treatment. Meaning that exercise is often more effective than prescribed drugs in cases of stress, anxiety and depression. Conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s were originally thought of as ‘old-age disorders’ and were a natural part of getting old. However, we now know that symptoms can be prevented or reduced with exercise. But how you ask? Exercise directly effects a part of your brain called the hippocampus - an area of the brain than controls memory, learning, and emotion regulation. Regular exercise increases the volume of certain brain regions, through better blood supply that improves neuron (brain cell) health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients, and through an increase in neurotrophic factors and neurohormones which promotes the new brain cells and connections. There is also research evidence that decreasing mental health is associated with reduced neurogenesis (new brain cell formation) in the hippocampus. Research has shown that three or more exercise sessions per week of aerobic exercise and resistance training for 45-60 minutes can help treat chronic depression. Effects tends to be noticed (improved mood and more energy) after 4 weeks (which is about the time it takes to form new brain cells) and training should be continued for at least 10-12 weeks for the best antidepressant effects, and then maintained for prevention. That may sound like a lot to someone who doesn’t exercise, but it’s not even close to what our bodies are capable of doing and how our bodies are designed. The exercise just needs to be set at the appropriate level for your fitness at the time, with progressions made overtime. Remember, we are designed to move. If we want to live the best life possible, we need to be physically active on a regular and consistent basis. It’s as simple as that - sit less, move more! Get in touch with us if you’d like help with starting or getting moving the way you should.  

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