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How exercise can help combat symptoms of mental illness

BY Alan Waterman

You may not have realized it, but on September 10, every year since 2003, the world has observed Suicide Prevention Day - a day dedicated towards providing commitment and action in order to prevent suicides, throughout the globe.

It’s an important day, because suicide is a much bigger issue than many are aware of; with mental health conditions increasing the potential risk for suicide, and with 1 in 4 people in the UK experiencing a mental health issue, not only is recognizing the need for suicide prevention necessary, but treating mental health disorders is also of huge importance.

In the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death amongst 20-34 year olds, and, as important a cause as suicide prevention is in any country, we, with the highest rate of suicide in the whole of the UK (seeing on average 6 suicides per week), should certainly be able to realise the value in drawing attention to it.

As far as treating mental health goes, interventions are sometimes necessary - medications do have their place, when required, as do additional forms of treatment (such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), but the effects of exercise and its correlation to improvements in mental health are becoming increasingly acknowledged.

We’ve all heard that exercise can make us feel good, and it really is true- it’s not a myth!

During exercise, the body releases endorphins, chemicals which react with receptors in the brain to both reduce perception of pain whilst also bringing about increased feelings of wellbeing, and even euphoria ,e.g. the 'runner’s high'. Given these noted effects, there is an increased recognition of exercise as one of the most under-utilized, but most effective prescriptions for treating mental health conditions.

And the evidence speaks for itself...

Research continues to further our understanding of the effectiveness of exercise on mental health; a paper published only earlier this year, as a meta-analysis of 33 studies and 1877 people, concluded that resistance/weight training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. This improvement in mental health was regardless of whether the individuals involved experienced any actual strength or physical health improvements- just doing it was enough to produce mental health benefits.

Studies have shown that as little as one hour a week of low-to-moderate intensity exercise can help reduce symptoms of some mental health illnesses, and although research has yet to prove a cause-and-effect relationship between exercise and its ability to prevent the initial development of depression, it strongly suggests it. It seems likely too that any and all types of exercise can benefit mental health, whether it be team sports, cycling, walking the dog, or even just doing the housework- it doesn’t have to be limited to what can be done in the gym.

Researchers have found that those who benefit most in terms of mental health were those who exercised for 30-60 minutes between three to five times per week- these more regular levels of activity have been shown to help with treatment of even chronic depression, whilst also increasing the likelihood of preventing cases of future development of depression.

Despite its proven effectiveness, however, some mental health conditions may at times be too overwhelming for exercise to be an option, and recovery from these illnesses and preventing relapse is multifaceted (as is their cause), but although exercise alone may not be enough to help treat or cure symptoms for everyone, it can, for many, offer an effective method of treatment.

As World Suicide Prevention Day comes and goes for another year, it is once again an opportunity to draw attention to the importance of mental health, and taking care of both our bodies and our minds. Given the overwhelming amount of evidence, it seems apparent that the two really do go hand in hand.

Want more advice and tips as to how to reach you fitness goals, or improve physical and mental health? Make sure to check out my Facebook and Instagram pages for new daily content.

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