We’ve all heard it before, but how does exercise really impact our mental health?
Is it all good?
Can it be bad?
Well, we thought to bring in an expert to help us get better understanding. Today we’re lucky enough to interview the amazing Sherzan Daver and have her graciously share her professional knowledge on all things mental health and exercise. Let’s get stuck in!
Hey Sherzan! Thanks so much for taking the time to share your knowledge with us on all things EXERCISE and MENTAL HEALTH. Before we begin, could you please give us a bit of an intro to yourself and your experience in the field?
My name is Sherzan and I am a psychiatric Social Worker. (BA Psychology, M Social Work) (Member of AASW)
I work at an Intensive Mental Health Care Unit in the public sector. I am responsible for supporting the needs of our acutely unwell patients by conducting biopsychosocial assessments, attending mental health review tribunals, managing their finances and/or accommodation needs, and developing a comprehensive discharge plan for when the patients eventually transition from our hospital back into their correctional or community-based settings.
Additionally, I work with outpatients in a privately owned psychiatric hospital. In this respite care setting, I am responsible for facilitating groups in Dialectical Behavioural Therapy and Recovery from Drug and Alcohol Addiction. Group therapy equips my clients with mental health skills that have been formulated to increase their capacity to tolerate distress, build regulate painful emotions, improving their interpersonal relationships and ultimately building a life worth living. Furthermore, I have clients in my private practice and specialise in couples counselling.
I am passionate about strength and conditioning-related sports and have competed in several powerlifting competitions. As of recent, I have made the switch to bodybuilding and hope to compete next year in the novice wellness division. Like my social work practice, being successful and avoiding burnout in this competitive sport requires unconditional positive regard – accepting and valuing who I am without judgment or criticism. It is easy for us to quit when feelings of self-doubt, fear of failure or fatigue creep in. What is not so easy, is quieting those feelings and believing in our own capabilities.
Thanks for sharing, Sherzan. We love that you’re someone who practices what they preach! Now, what do you feel are the primary benefits of physical exercise in relation to our mental health?
Engaging in physical exercise can improve your overall physique, trim your waistline, and even add years to your life. But the physical benefits we reap from this activity are truly just the tip of the iceberg! People who choose to engage in routine physical exercise tend to do so because it improves and sustains their mental well-being.
Physical exercise is, unfortunately, an overlooked tool in the treatment of both chronic and less acute mental health conditions.
When I prescribe my client’s consistent physical exercise as part of their treatment plans, the feedback is consistent:
- Improvements in overall mood
- More energy in their professional and domestic settings
- Better sleep and cognitive functioning
- Enhanced self-esteem
But don’t let my personal anecdotes sell you!
There is a growing body of both applied and longitudinal research showing a causal relationship between physical exercise and improved mental health outcomes.
Studies focusing on the treatment of mild to moderate depression found physical exercise to yield the same results of psychotropic medication – but without the nasty side effects of course!
For example, antipsychotic medication, while lifesaving for some, can have adverse side effects such as weight gain, emotional numbness and reduced sexual libido.
Now, you may be asking yourselves…
“How does physical exercise combat depression?”.
It does this by physically altering your brain structure and functioning. This includes increased neural growth, reduced inflammation and generating new neural pathways and activity patterns that promote feelings of tranquillity and well-being.
Physical activity also stimulates the production and release of the chemicals, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These essential chemicals play an integral part in regulating your mood and can even reduce your perception of physical and emotional pain, as they mimic the chemical properties of morphine.
Additionally, physical exercise in conjunction with mindfulness practice can be used to help alleviate the adverse symptoms of anxiety. The next time you enrol in one of PPT’s high-intensity training classes, notice the sensation of your feet hitting the ground, the rhythm of your breathing, the fluctuations in your heart rate, or the feeling of sweat accumulating on your skin.
Really focusing on your body and how it feels as you exercise, can interrupt the chain of constant worries, that so often plague our minds. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to utilise exercise as a tool to treat mental illness.
Even if you’re not suffering from a mental health condition, regular physical exercise can still offer a welcome boost to your mood, outlook and overall mental well-being.
Great! So we now we know how and why exercise is good for us, how much exercise would you say is required to experience some of these amazing benefits?
The clinical guidelines stipulate that individuals should exercise for at least 15 to 30 minutes, 3 times a week at a moderate to vigorous intensity for a training block of at least 8 weeks, to experience mental health benefits.
Larger doses (longer or more frequent sessions) may be more effective if this is a feasible option for you.
The type of exercise (i.e., aerobic exercise or resistance training) or whether the exercise is carried out in a group or individual may be less important than tailoring the exercise to your individual preferences and needs. If you are suffering from an acute mental condition, however, it is recommended to slowly build-up to this amount of exercise.
Sherzan, we work with a lot of busy, hardworking clients. There would be people reading this loving what they’re hearing but thinking “I just don’t have the resources or time to make it happen!”. Do you know if there is a minimum effective dose when it comes to experiencing the benefits of exercise on our mental health?
We all know that exercise helps us feel better but taking that first step is still easier said than done.
Obstacles to exercising are very real—particularly when you’re also struggling with mental illness.
Here are some common barriers and how you can get past them:
1. Fatigue – When you’re tired, working out may be the last thing you would want to do. But the truth is that physical activity is a powerful energiser. Studies show that regular physical exercise can dramatically reduce fatigue and increase your energy levels. If you are really feeling tired, make an inner commitment to a 5-minute walk. Chances are, once you get moving, you’ll have more energy and will be able to walk for longer.
2. Feeling overwhelmed – When you are emotionally burnt out, the thought of adding another obligation to your busy daily schedule can seem overwhelming. Physical exercise just doesn’t seem practical. If you have children, finding childcare while you exercise can also be a big hurdle. However, if you begin thinking of physical activity as a priority (a necessity for your mental well-being), you’ll soon find ways to fit small amounts of exercise into even with the busiest of schedules.
3. Lack of confidence and/or poor self-appraisal – Are you your own worst critic? It’s time to adopt a healthier more balanced way of thinking about your body. No matter your weight, age or fitness level, there are plenty of others in the same boat as you. Ask a friend to exercise with you. Accomplishing even the smallest of fitness goals will help you gain body confidence and improve how you think about yourself.
4. Physical pain – If you have a disability, arthritis or any injury or illness that limits your mobility, consult with your doctor and/or allied health providers about strategies to safely exercise. You shouldn’t ignore physical pain, but rather, keep the focus on doing what you can. Divide your physical exercise into shorter, more frequent chunks of time, or try exercising in water to reduce joint or muscle discomfort.
How long does it take after a bout of exercise for the benefits to take effect?
You don’t need to devote hours out of your busy day to train at PPT or run mile after monotonous mile to reap all the mental health benefits of physical exercise.
Just 30-minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity exercise, five times a week is sufficient.
Even a little bit of activity is better than nothing. If you don’t have time for 30 minutes of exercise, or if your body is screaming for you to take a break after 5 or 10 minutes, that’s okay, too. Start with 10-minute sessions and slowly increase the time.
The more you exercise, the more energy you’ll have, so eventually you’ll feel ready for a little more. You need to make a personal commitment to some moderate physical activity—however little—on most days.
As exercising becomes a habit, you can progressively add extra minutes and increase the intensity. Consistency is key.
You don’t have to torture yourself or suffer to yield the benefits of physical exercise. Research shows that moderate levels of exercise are optimal for most people. Moderate may look like; breathing a little heavier than usual or feeling warmer when you move your body.
This is all brilliant Sherzan! To wrap us up, if you could offer only 1 piece of advice to our readers in using exercise to support our mental health, what would it be?
Many of us find it hard enough to motivate ourselves to exercise at the best of times. But when you feel depressed, anxious, stressed, or have another mental health problem, it can seem doubly difficult.
This is especially true of depression and anxiety, which can leave you feeling trapped in a catch-22 situation.
You know exercise will make you feel better, but depression has robbed you of the energy and motivation you need to work out, or your social anxiety means you can’t bear the thought of being seen at an exercise class or going outside.
Start small. When you’re under the cloud of anxiety or depression and haven’t exercised for a long time, setting extravagant goals like completing a marathon or working out for an hour every morning will only leave you more despondent if you fall short. It is better to set yourself with achievable goals and build up from there.
Schedule workouts when your energy is highest. Perhaps you have most energy first thing in the morning before work or school or at lunchtime before the mid-afternoon lull hits?
Or maybe you do better exercising for longer at the weekends.
If depression or anxiety has you feeling tired and unmotivated all day long, try dancing to some music or simply going for a walk. Focus on activities you enjoy.
Any activity that gets you moving counts. That could include throwing a Frisbee with a dog or friend, walking laps of a mall window shopping, or cycling to the grocery store.
If you’ve never exercised before or don’t know what you might enjoy, try a few different things. Activities such as gardening or tackling a home improvement project can be great ways to start moving more when you have a mood disorder—as well as helping you become more active, they can also leave you with a sense of purpose and accomplishment.
Be comfortable. Wear clothing that’s comfortable and choose a setting that you find calming or energizing. That may be a quiet corner of your home, a scenic path, or your favourite city park.
Reward yourself. Part of the reward of completing an activity is how much better you’ll feel afterward, but it always helps your motivation to promise yourself an extra treat for exercising. Reward yourself with a hot bubble bath after a workout, a delicious smoothie, or an extra episode of your favourite TV show.
Make exercise a social activity. Exercising with a friend or loved one, or even your kids, will not only make exercising more fun and enjoyable, but it can also help motivate you to stick to a workout routine. You’ll also feel better than if you were exercising alone. In fact, when you’re suffering from a mood disorder such as depression, companionship can be just as important as exercise.
Thanks so much, Sherzan. You’ve shared some absolute gold here that I know is going to make a lot of people feel a whole lot better! You’re the best!