When experts and researchers consider the impact of exercise, they tend to focus solely on the physical benefits to a person’s body. They rarely examine either the social benefits or more importantly, the mental health benefits. However, more and more studies are considering these two angles. While there is often contradictory advice when it comes to the body and how to nourish and look after it, the verdict on exercise’s ability to improve mood, cognitive function, and overall mental health is fairly uniform – it’s very good for you.
There is, therefore, need to expose these benefits in more depth so individuals, groups, and organisations can make better decisions. For example, can employees improve their work through exercise by improving cognitive as well as physical functions? Should businesses encourage or provide for exercise? Can government and voluntary/charitable organisations work with individuals to improve physical health to not only reduce the burden of the NHS, but to also improve mental health which is woefully underfunded in the UK?
How Exercise Improves Mental Health
First, it is worth examining how exercise can improve mental health. Studies are showing that even the smallest amount of exercise can have a major impact on emotional wellbeing. This means even walking can be beneficial. From releasing endorphins to improving cognitive function, exercise has the power to improve the lives of not just those with mental health concerns, but those who feel otherwise ok. In fact, exercise is linked to better memories, slower decline rates in ageing, and neurogenesis - the creation of new brain cells.
However, it is in specific mental health issues that exercise can make a huge impact on our daily lives, and society as a whole. We can look at this in more depth by examining specific mental health issues:
- Anxiety: This is a panicked response to an irrational sense of dread or certain triggers specific to each individual. These can be due to earlier trauma or experiences. Exercise is known to help reduce the likelihood of triggers starting a panic attack and for those attacks to be calmer in nature.
- ADHD: Sceptics remain uncertain how exercise can help ADHD, but there is growing evidence that it can help children find motivation, function more effectively and concentrate more. This means similar benefits to medications such as Adderall, but without the side effects.
- Depression: Feeling down for extended amounts of time can be a natural state of being which is hard to shift. Exercise is known to produce endorphins, which means it is able to help cheer people up even temporarily. Studies now show even exercising twice a week can reduce the symptoms of depression.
- PTSD: Similar in some aspects to anxiety, PTSD or trauma related health issues also feature stress (see below). These are not limited to members of the military, but anyone who has had a traumatic experience. Exercise is shown to be an effective way of minimising triggers, reducing the likelihood of destructive episodes, and keeping patients away from substance abuse.
- Stress: There are a myriad of causes for stress from finances to work, from study pressures to family issues, relationship problems to health issues. However, exercise has been shown in conjunction with meditation and yoga, to reduce heart issues, alleviate physical symptoms, and to produce a clearer mind to deal with the problems at hand.
Anyone suffering from any kind of mental health issue should discuss these options with their local GP or with a mental health expert, such as a counsellor. There is no guarantee that exercise will alleviate existing issues and it is certainly not a cure, but it may help. It is advised to keep a diary and consult widely before thinking about giving up any medication to use exercise as an alternative.
How Exercise Improves Us Socially
In addition to physical health and emotional/cognitive health, exercise improves social health. These benefits include improving teamwork and communication. It is by no means a smooth path, but in work terms, exercise helps bond teams together, improve knowledge of each other’s skills, and overall team cohesion. In a diverse workplace, exercise can be an equaliser but can also set some people back due to different physical capabilities or fitness levels. It should be remembered that exercise is just one method of improving teamwork and social skills.
How Exercise Improves Overall Health
Of course exercise comes with risk factors - mostly to physical health. Even yoga can lead to breakages and injuries. However, overall health is improved by exercise and risk factors for numerous diseases and illnesses are reduced including diabetes and asthma. Of course each condition needs to be accounted for prior to exercise and it should not be overdone. There are many reasons to forego exercise from a lack of energy to a lack of motivation, but try to overcome them because even the smallest step (or group of steps rather) can make the world of difference to your happiness.If you would like to read more about mental health and its impact in the workplace, please click here.
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