Exercise is not just for your body.

I’m going to start with the dry, some might say, boring stuff. This will be followed by the useful stuff. And if you make it all the way to the end, I’ll explain why I’ve done it in that order.

October 10th is world Mental Health Day.

Why is that important?

Looking at the following stats from the Mental Health Foundation of Australia it’s apparent that at any stage at least one member of our family, a couple of our friends and a few of our colleagues will be suffering with mental health issues.

  • One out of every five Australians [about 20%] will experience some form of mental illness each year. Three out of every ten [about 30%] will be seriously affected.
  • One in four people will experience an anxiety disorder at some stage of their lives.
  • Around one million Australian adults and 100,000 young people live with depression each year.
  • On average, one in five people will experience depression in their lives.
  • At least one third of young people have had an episode of mental illness by the age of 25 years.
  • Approximately two-­thirds of people with a mental illness do not receive any treatment in any 12-month period.

As with any illness seeking help from appropriate medical professionals is vital and the earlier that process starts the better. I once heard a Doctor compare mental illness to being in a hole. You may be able to climb part of the way out on your own, but there is a good chance you will slide back in whenever you get close to the top. Professional help is the ladder, use it to help yourself climb out. And even if you’ve never been in a hole, one could open up when you least expect it. No one can afford to neglect their mental health.

TIP: Remember you are not alone. No matter how much you feel like it, you are not alone.

Attractive female swimming under the water surface with eyes opened. Focused on face, polarizing filter, convenient copy space

How exercise helps.

It’s a well published fact that exercise is one of the best things someone can do to improve/maintain their mental health. But most people don’t realise just how big an impact exercise has. The effect is exponential. Exercising stimulates chemicals in your brain that improve your mood. But those chemical reactions also improve your memory and ability to learn. Do you think having a better memory and improved learning ability will also help your mood, outlook and self-esteem?  Do you think that might be important as you age? Do you think it may help people dealing with exams or performance pressure?   You don’t need to do a heap. 10 minutes of moving is better than 10 minutes sitting down. The most important thing is being mindful when you are doing it and being consistent.

TIP: Exercise regularly and do it for the rest of your life. Have your regular exercise routine e.g. swimming, tennis, running or class. But also have a backup method, e.g. walking, home exercise video, body weight exercises (there are literally dozens of apps available) for you to use if you encounter a stressful time and can’t keep to your regular routine. Don’t fall into a rigid mindset, thinking ‘If I can’t do my 10000 steps then it’s no point going for a walk at all.’ Exercise will help you deal with stress and anxiety, don’t make it part of your stress and anxiety.  If you know you are coming up to a stressful time, travelling, doing exams etc. and you won’t be able to exercise for a few days, then increase your exercise leading into it. You can actually build up a little ‘exercise credit’ to carry you through the tough times. Unfortunately, you can’t do ‘catch up’ exercise.

For exercise to improve your fitness it must present a challenge. For some people it may be to lift a heavier weight or it may be to run further. But for some people getting out of bed and walking to the letter box may be challenging enough. It doesn’t matter where you are starting from, just start. Overcoming a challenge is one of the best feeling anyone will ever experience. And It can’t be hacked. It can’t be gifted. You can’t buy it. Regularly tackling and overcoming challenges builds confidence and self-esteem. It increases a sense of self-worth and reduces anxiety. You don’t need to climb Mt Everest; you just need to do something that challenges you. Having someone to help you face those challenges is great, but they can’t do it for you.                                                TIP: Just start. How much, how often, what type will all sort itself out in time. Just start.

Sleep. Its important. Very important. One of the first signs that your mental health is less than optimal is if your sleep is screwed up. You may not sleep at all, you may do nothing but sleep, either way it is a danger sign. And it works the other way. Screw around with your sleep and it will set you up to get sick. Exercise helps reset your body clock and does a bunch of other stuff that will help you sleep better.                                                                                                             TIP: Look into sleep hygiene and you will find some things you can do to improve your sleep but regular exercise is near the top of the list. Give it some time, it doesn’t work straight away but it does help.

Learning new skills. Research shows that learning throughout life is associated with greater satisfaction and optimism. People who carry on learning after childhood have greater wellbeing and ability to cope with stress. They also report more feelings of self-esteem, hope and purpose. Continual learning is one of the few things that is known to help ward off the effects of age related mental health problems. Your brain benefits from being kept active, flexible, agile just as your muscles do. You may not have the time, money or inclination to start guitar lessons or do further study, but lots of types of exercise involve learning new skills. Exercise isn’t just for the body, heart and lungs, it should involve your mind. Try new things, ones that you aren’t good at straight away, work away at it you will experience how good it feels to master something new.


Tip: No one else knows how to do everything, so why should you? Be open to learning something new. Stop talking for a while and let yourself learn. (No human can hear what someone else is saying and talk at the same time. Sometimes you just need to shut up and listen. It will reduce your anxiety and the anxiety of the people around you). So what if you muck it up a bit, each time you try you will get better at it. The rewards are worth it. And yes being out of your comfort zone, either physical or mental, is uncomfortable, that’s the point!

Final Tip: If you are doing something that you know isn’t very good for you (eating that second piece of mud cake, lighting up a cigarette) you get a feeling of pleasure just before you do it. Then after its done you feel guilty, dissatisfied and unhappy. Sometimes this can be so intense you are driven to have another cigarette or third piece of cake to try and make yourself feel better. Not good for mental health.

Conversely when we are going to do something that is good for us (exercise, study, house work) we get an attack of the ‘I can’t be bothered’ just before we start.  (often disguised as I’m too tired, it’s too cold blah,blah,blah) But after we have done the good deed, we get the ‘I feel great” thing. Very good for mental health. So… feel good right now, but feel crappy later on. Or push through the crappy feelings now and feel great later on. You have a choice.

Your entire body is set up to make you respond well to exercise. From altered brain chemistry, better sleep, better learning and memory and even looking better, exercise will make you feel better and be healthier and happier. Exercise is about getting you out of your comfort zone, making you ‘comfortable with being uncomfortable.’ Even if you are already fit and healthy you need to look for new ways to challenge yourself to maintain both your physical and mental health.

That uncomfortable feeling maybe because you are breathing really hard or that your muscles are tired and feel heavy or that you keep getting your left and right feet confused or it may be that you are leaving the house for the first time in a while. Whatever it is, just push the limits of your comfort zone a little bit every day and you will find the zone gets bigger. You learn that you can not only survive the uncomfortable zone, but that you feel so much better on the other side of it. You will find that you are stronger than your thought. You will find you are more capable and more resilient than you expected. The more often you exercise the less emotionally stressful it is and the more consistent the feelings of well-being become. It’s not easy, but it is worth it.

Just start.