Mental Health and Exercise

Whichever mental health charity or self-help website you visit, there is always a common factor – exercise is good for your mental health. Ever since I was diagnosed with generalised anxiety and panic disorders in 2012, I have been scouring the internet looking for ways to not only understand mental health, but to aid my medication through natural remedies.

Unfortunately, exercise has never been a strong point of mine. I really, really am not a fan. So, even though I was seeing constant advice on the benefits of exercise in mental health, I didn’t bother. Surely exercise couldn’t help THAT much. I think my downfall here was that I saw the word ‘exercise’ and immediately presumed that that referred to a 10 mile run, which I am most definitely not capable of. I did find that a short walk to the shops helped to clear my mind and, when my anxiety was at its worst, going for a ten minute walk at a certain time each day gave me structure and was a little bit of an escape route from the stress of the future.

It has only now dawned on me that these small ten minute walks count just as much as a 10 mile run – exercise is great for mental health, but that doesn’t mean that you need to push yourself to become a bodybuilder. Whatever you feel capable of, perhaps like me it is only a ten minute walk, it really can help.

I read an article today entitled ‘Going on nature walks is good for mental health’. Coincidentally, I have just returned from a lovely long weekend away with my incredible partner. We went to the Lake District and some of the scenery was simply breath-taking, really putting all of life’s worries and anxieties into perspective.

lakes

The article focused on a study which has found that taking a walk in a natural environment can bring about positive changes in the brain and may help fight depression. Previous studies had already found a link between walking in a natural environment and an improved mood and decrease in anxiety.

It seems that I had been doing the whole ‘exercise’ thing right this whole time, I just didn’t know it. So, if like me you do not plan to become an Olympic athlete any time soon, take a 10 minute walk. And, if you decide to walk for longer, then all the better. Sometimes we just need to get away from the hustle and bustle of life, a nature walk can do you the world of good and really does take very little effort. My advice would be to set a time slot, one that you do not deviate from, in which you can go for a walk – whether to the shops, to a beauty spot or just to the park – and make this time slot ‘your time’.

Because my anxiety and panic disorders truly came to fruition during University, I had very little structure at that time. Exams were over, there were no lectures to go to and I really was left to my own devices. That is dangerous, because if you have nothing (or think you have nothing) to get out of bed for, then that’s where you’ll stay. During cognitive behavioural therapy, my therapist stressed the importance of structure and suggested that I have a set routine each day. This way, it would make me less panicked about the unknown, as I had a plan of what I was going to do each day and when I was going to do it – my therapist liked the idea of having meals at certain times of the day, waking up and going to sleep at the same time each day. That was difficult to do at University and I didn’t really listen to my therapist as much as I should have, thinking that going to sleep at 10pm one night and 3am the next surely couldn’t impact upon my mental health. Now that I have entered the big bad world of employment, there is a natural structure to my day – I have to get up at the same time each day, I take my lunch at the same time each day and I get home from work at the same time each day. So I have naturally created a routine for myself and it really helps a lot!

I certainly believe that structure is important when living with mental health problems. At the time of my diagnosis, I simply did not have the willpower or the energy to create a routine for myself. I have found that I have gradually slipped into a routine and that it has been the best thing possible for my mental health. Exercise can easily be factored into this routine and that can be as little or as much exercise as works for you.

Personally, I find walking to be very calming and, if the study that I have read today is correct, I had better find some more beautiful places to walk – I’m not going to complain about that!

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