Exercise is Central to New ‘Five-a-Day’ Style Approach to Mental Health

This is an article written by guest writer Jennifer Timpson which is an astute piece given the increasing emphasis being placed upon mental health issues by political parties, the NHS and (of course) the military in general.

When most people hear the expression ‘five a day’ the first thing that springs to mind is the campaign to encourage us to eat at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day. Now a London headmaster, Adam Pettitt, has hit the headlines by advocating a similar approach to improving mental health in young people. His five point plan advises regular good quality sleep, recreational reading, structured downtime, communal areas for homework and most importantly regular sessions of heart-rate boosting exercise. With an estimated 850,000 young people in the UK already suffering from conditions such as eating disorders and depression it is clear that radical action is needed. Exercise is unsurprisingly a key weapon in this new plan of attack – the body of evidence to support the benefits of exercise to body and mind has been growing for some time. Here we take a closer look at how exercise can form a central plank of treatment for a range of conditions including anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol addiction and even memory loss.

Why exercise benefits the mind

There are a wide variety of theories about why exercise keeps our mind as well as our body healthy. Some experts argue that the causal link goes right back to the time of our creation when human survival depended on active tasks like hunting food and building shelter. They believe that these experiences have hard wired us into needing exercise as part of our lives.

Whatever the views on the source of the need to be active, researchers almost universally agree on the positive effect which exercise has on certain key mood related chemicals in our brain. Two important neurotransmitters -serotonin and dopamine- are particularly revitalized by regular physical exercise. Other brain chemicals are also stimulated by keeping fit, helping new brain cells grow and develop which then defend our brain against the harmful effects of stress.

Maximising the impact

While exercise per se is clearly of benefit, there are ways in which the associated positive health impacts can be maximised. The first aspect to consider is the frequency of the activity. Although even a short burst of exercise such as a quick ten minute walk can boost our mood, longer, regular exercise sessions are likely to generate the most positive results. UK national guidelines recommend that we should exercise at a moderate level of intensity for at least 150 minutes each week, which fits rather neatly into five 30 minute sessions.

The second element in a mood boosting activity regime is to exercise outdoors. An old Danish proverb says, ‘fresh air impoverishes the doctor,’ and this view has now been backed up by research published in the Environmental Science and Technology journal. It states that even five minutes of outdoor exercise in a green space such as a park or field can have a real impact on an individual’s mood and self-esteem.

Exercising in a group has also been found to intensify the mental health payoff of physical activity. Using exercise as a platform to create new networks enables the individual to enjoy the social aspects of a group activity. A study carried out with US veterans showed how combining the effects of outdoor exercise with group activity can even further enhance the wellbeing rewards. Evidence gathered before, during and after an extended outdoor group activity based experience reinforced the link between this type of exercise and long-term psychological well-being.

What specific conditions respond to a physical exercise regime?

Exercise can help guard against and also treat a wide range of health conditions. Here are a few examples:

  • Depression– The release of mood boosting chemicals associated with physical exercise makes it an ideal prescription for people with depressive disorders. It also reduces tension and anxiety, enhances energy levels, improves sleep patterns and is an outlet for frustration and anger.
  • Addiction– Addiction is common in people with mental health conditions as alcohol and drugs are often used to self medicate the symptoms of anxiety and depression. People who are trying to recover from dependence on drugs or alcohol miss the endorphins produced by their substance of choice. Exercise can act as an effective substitute as it causes a similar release of endorphins which are responsible for the ‘high’ feeling.
  • Memory loss– A healthy brain relies on a healthy heart to support it. Conditions such as hardened arteries and high cholesterol can damage this relationship by hampering blood flow to the brain. Exercise can significantly improve cardiovascular health and as a double whammy also stimulates growth in the brain, particularly in areas that support our memory.

Getting to grips with a programme of regular exercise is an essential underpinning to better physical and mental health. If we really want to improve our overall well-being we should listen to the wise words of Buddha,

“To keep the body in good health is a duty…otherwise we shall not be able to keep our mind strong and clear.”


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