Mental Health – What’s exercise got to do with it?

Mental Health – What’s exercise got to do with it?

Mental health has been a hot topic for the last few years – awareness of the various mental health issues, and struggles, that people face, and the many ways to access help, and treat them.

I’ve experienced mental health issues since my early teens and understand only too well how they can impact your life. I say this not to garner sympathy, but because personally I hate to hear someone’s opinion on something they have not experienced – it’s like the midwife with no children telling you she knows it hurts, but you can do this, when you’re in labour – no love, you’ve really got no idea!

In my teens and early twenties I blindly struggled through, not even aware at times that what I was experiencing was a health issue – just believing that, that was who I was, and this was how my life would be. Exercise was not something that factored in my life – apart from maybe hours spent on dance floors – even then myself and my good friend, who made it a point to go out, and go dancing at least once a week – used to say how much better we felt after it, for days after. Back then we thought it was just the thrill of getting out, now I think maybe it was more to do with the vigorous dancing that ensued!

As I started to access treatment for my mental health in my mid-twenties and onwards, exercise was recommended to me often; Yoga, walking, swimming – go and join a fitness class etc. At first, I think all I heard, was that I must be lazy. When your self-esteem is already low, when you already spend time feeling useless, and severely lacking in  motivation – all I could hear was that I was lazy, maybe if I wasn’t I would feel better. It felt like an insult – just another person telling me that my illness was my fault.

I had also been exposed to media, and people, that peddled the trope that depression was a cop out, a laziness, an unwillingness to engage and get better. I had one good friend, who before they met me and saw my issues first-hand, had honestly thought that ‘mental health issues’ were just an excuse for people not to work. He used to work in social welfare payment processing, he now works as a mental health nurse – says it all really.

I was blessed to then get a counsellor, and a GP, that I clicked with, after many futile attempts and bad fits – this is also something I would say to those of you trying to engage with therapy, and treatment – don’t get disheartened.

I know that it’s much easier said than done, I really do, but if the first attempts don’t work out, keep going if you can, the right method or clinician could be around the corner.

Myself, and my counsellor, connected on a personal level, and when she spoke to me about yoga, and exercise it didn’t feel so harsh, or belittling, I knew this was from personal experience, and I trusted her, and her view of me.

I also began to understand, with maturity, treatment, and as mental health came under the spotlight, the science behind it.

Exercise causes the release of endorphins into the brain, they are a type of messenger, a transmitter that on a physical, chemical level reduce our feelings of stress and pain. It also causes the release of dopamine – which I think most people have now come to know as one of the ‘happy hormones’. Dopamine also plays a crucial role in many areas of our mentality – affecting our ability to sleep, focus, feel motivation, and on a physical level it can help regulate our heart rate and blood vessel function.

Exercise causes the release of norepinephrine, another hormone/neurotransmitter (or brain messenger) this plays a crucial role in the use of memory, emotional regulation, sleep, focus and attention span.

It also causes the release of Serotonin, this chemical is essential to our mood regulation, gut health, sleep and, on a physical level, can affect our ability to heal from wounds, and our bone health. This is only a small snippet of the functions of these chemicals and hormones, the full list of their necessity and their effects is amazing. I’ll include some links below for further reading.

I always hated the phrase ‘it’s all in your head’ – again it feels insulting, like you are making up your illness – but if we look at the chemical make-up that actually impact our mood and emotions, it is all going on in our head – in our brain, the balance and release of all of these various chemicals that create and maintain our mood on a hormonal and physical level.

Of course, and I know only too well, environment, trauma and experience can cause these initial imbalances, and can be terribly difficult to overcome. Also some people, on a biological level, just don’t produce enough of these chemicals, and will need some form of medication to get them started on their journey to better mental well-being, and maintenance of the same – myself included. There is zero shame in this, we didn’t get to choose our beginnings, or our initial brain chemistry, but we can choose to change it.

Instead of feeling insulting – now it feels empowering – to know that I can take physical action, that then results in physiological, hormonal, and chemical changes within my own brain. I didn’t fully believe it myself, until I started doing it.

I also understand the vicious cycle – it takes motivation, focus, etc to change, and begin action, and if these are already lacking on a physical, chemical level how do you begin? For me, the initial boosters were medication, therapy and educating myself through various books, and media on mental health. I was also blessed to be around others who had similar experiences and understood me. I then also, initially, just started going for walks, nothing heavy. I also later added wrist and ankle weights to this.

I can’t speak for others, all I can say is keep going, keep trying things, don’t give up, and believe me, that this is a physical illness, as well as mental, and like anything from a broken leg, to an infection – it can be treated to improve your life experience.

I also think, and I’m no anthropologist, that in an evolutionary sense, our bodies are wired for movement. Movement and action were so crucial to our survival for hundreds of thousands of years. If we wanted food, we had to find it, hunt it, or grow it. If we wanted access to water, we had to find and collect it. If we wanted to travel, we had to walk, run, swim, and climb over vast swathes of land. Our shelters were self-built, our clothes self-made.

In todays society, and I don’t think it is any coincidence that we have seen such a rise in mental health issues – of course this is also partly due to more accurate diagnosis and information – but we don’t have to be especially active to survive.

If we want water, in large parts of the world, we turn on a tap. So simple. If we want food we drive, largely stationary, to the shops, a 20-minute walk around and drive home again. So many of our jobs now are desk based, stationary for 6 or 8 hours a day.  Someone else makes our clothes, builds our shelter.

Not only does this impact our chemical make-up, but it also affects our sense of achievement and capability. So, for many, we must choose to move, to be active, and stimulate the release of these chemicals.

My personal choices are yoga (thought to be especially helpful in the treatment of trauma), swimming, occasional HIT workouts, and walking/running (I say running, it’s a mild jog, but that’s ok!). I also have a fitness peddler that I can use whilst watching TV in the living room if the mood takes me (Not as often as it should!). I’ve also recently taken up knitting, I think any movement at all, when you would normally be stationary, is beneficial, and adds to our feelings of well-being.

I also recently invested in some ‘barefoot’ shoes – I’ve been reading more and more, about the physical benefits, and clearly the physical affects the mental. I think once again, too, that it brings us closer to our roots as natural humans, we were thousands of years barefoot, or minimally shod, now our feet, and therefore our gait, are forced into all kinds of unnatural positions and shapes – surely this can’t be good for us either.

There is also new research into the effects of running barefoot on our brain function, specifically our memory, I’ll pop a link to a piece on that also. Unfortunately, our environment often prevents this, with all the dangers our feet encounter – barefoot shoes are the perfect middle ground.

In these difficult times we find ourselves enduring, restricted to our homes, and no clear end in sight, I think exercise, and physical activity is more crucial than ever. Even our normal jaunts – out dancing at the weekend, a swim in the local pool, a walk around several shops on a day out with friends – are withheld from us.

Invest in yourself, invest in fitness products – dumbbells, a yoga mat, a running belt that means you can listen to music whilst you go for a walk, an exercise bike that means you are moving whilst watching corrie. Get yourself some snazzy workout clothes – I always feel different when I get out of the dressing gown and into my workout gear. It’s the same as putting on your uniform for school, or work, it affects our mindset, and indicates we are changing mode.

I know that there are many things we can do without equipment – and of course they are valid too – but sometimes making that investment, and having a physical piece of equipment can also drive us to make use of it. Especially if we can watch telly at the same time, or listen to our favourite podcast.

I hated hearing, for so long, that if I took up exercise I would feel better – and if this whole piece has just made you feel the same way – I challenge you to this; Whatever you’re doing right now, if you’re able, – stop – get out of your seat, or off the loo, or out of bed and just run or jump on the spot, vigorously, for 30 seconds. Then come back and tell me…. did it change the way you felt?

Links for further reading on the chemical components:,to%20medical%20treatments%20for%20insomnia.

Link – Barefoot Memory Function

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Aengus Burke

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