Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood. For our LGBTQI+ community being ‘mentally healthy’ is vital for functioning in our fast-paced, still coming grips with, diverse and to become ‘more inclusive’ world.
During my day to day business, I coach and train people from many various positions in life. They range from the busy owner of a supermarket chain to the equally as busy solo mum of four kids and then as young as the high-school teenager struggling with fitting in or coping with sexuality or gender identity. This wide range of home environment, mental state and perception of stress from day to day are constantly different and forever changing for each person. One thing I teach is that exercise is the best medicine for staying ‘Mentally Healthy’.
Firstly it would be good to tell you what I mean when I say ‘mentally healthy’. In my opinion, it would refer to an individual who doesn’t suffer from psychological thoughts and feelings which cause an excessive level of distress or impairment to their daily functioning. Essentially a person who is mentally healthy is a person who can operate “normally” (without impairment) on a day to day basis despite the issues and psychological discomforts they may have.
For example: We all have obsessive-compulsive characteristics. But the coping difference between these characteristics and a sufferer of OCD is that normally we are capable of operating while experiencing these characteristics (such as simply ignoring them until they pass or deal with the anxiety until it passes). On the other hand, a person with OCD is incapable of operating with these characteristics as to them they could appear to be demands that must be fulfilled and they cannot continue with their daily life until they are met.
There are many ways that exercise can influence how you handle stressful situations, being able to decipher these situations with a clear head will ultimately improve your mental health.
One of the most common mental benefits of doing exercise is for stress relief. It is well known that working up a sweat can help you cope with physical and mental stress. When we exercise we release a hormone called Norepinephrine, the stress hormone. This hormone is released in times of stress, which we often refer to as times of flight or fight.
The fight or flight response happens when we are faced with potentially dangerous or threatening situations, including at times when things are intimidating or scary. But mostly when you need to make decisions about whether to stay and fight, or turn and run as in flight.
Norepinephrine causes several bodily changes to the way it functions like; increasing the amount of oxygen going to your brain, which helps you to think clearer and faster. Also like increasing your heart rate, this pumps more blood around our body, helping your muscles to work faster and more efficiently.
If you relate that back to staying Mentally Healthy, it obvious that if you are able to practice thinking more clearer there’s a huge chance you’ll make better decisions about how to deal with certain stressful situations. Having your muscles working more efficiently will lead to having more energy for other activities which in turn will make you more productive and getting things ticked off your to-do list, this will give you more time to solve bigger problems you might have.
Another reason that exercise contributes to a better mental health relates to exercising for depression.
Improved self-esteem is a key psychological benefit of regular exercise. When you exercise, your body releases chemicals called Endorphins. Endorphins interact with the receptors in your brain and can reduce your perception of pain.
The other exciting role of endorphins is that they trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of Morphine. For example, my clients often describe the feeling that follows a workout or any type of moderate exercise as ‘euphoric’. Speaking from experience, it can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.
Endorphins can act as analgesics and can diminish your perception of pain. They are manufactured in your brain, spinal cord and many other parts of your body and are released in response to brain chemicals called neurotransmitters. The neuron receptors endorphins bind to are the same ones that bind some pain medicines. However, unlike with morphine, the activation of these receptors by the body’s endorphin does not lead to addiction or a dependence.
If you have the option to increase the number of endorphins circulating the body, it makes absolute sense to choose exercise as a safer option to possibly help you feel better rather than turning to painkillers.
The last convincing reason that you should exercise to improve your mental health is not about hormones or bodily chemicals but about the good old fashion sense of achievement. Setting personal goals is something that we just do not do enough of. Exercise can be a way of setting small achievable goals daily to help you begin to feel like you are getting somewhere.
Your exercise goals could be as simple as; I will exercise daily or a little more long-term like; I will complete a half marathon. They need to be specific to you and what you want to achieve and remember to make them realistic too.
Seeing your daily, weekly, monthly goals being achieved will give you are a sense of achievement. This comes with having pride, creating further challenges and beginning to look forward to what you could possibly achieve tomorrow. Having a purpose to wake up in the morning or a purpose to exercise is by far one of the best ways of improving your mental health. Hey, you might even start to set goals that don’t relate to exercise but to work, life and relationships.
There are many reasons why you should get involved with regular exercise and becoming mentally healthy and physically fit are some of the best reasons. Please remember that not every workout has to be to exhaustion. Safe moderate exercise could include the following;
• Walking (or walking the dog)
• Light Jogging
• Playing a sport
• Housework especially sweeping, mopping, vacuuming
• Low impact aerobics (think group fitness or aerobics at home)
• Yoga (or Pilates)