By: Kathleen Mc Quaide (Sports Scientist, Strategic, Marketing and Relationship Manager at the Sports Science Institute of SA)
“Feeling down” or “got the blues” more often than you’d like? You are NOT alone – anxiety, panic disorder and depression are becoming increasingly common in our society and it has been predicted that by the year 2020, the most common reason for South Africans visiting their doctors will be due to depression. It is believed that only about 20% of individuals who meet the criteria for depression are actually treated by someone trained in the field (psychologist, psychiatrist). A major reason for this, is that people fear being labelled or stigmatised as having a mental condition, and they therefore underplay the severity of their symptoms. However, if the doctor or therapist was to approach their patient with positive preventative type strategies such as exercise, it would probably be much more acceptable to them. In fact, it has now been conclusively shown that in non-depressed men and women, inactivity is a major predictor of future depression- so all medical professionals should be prescribing exercise.
Maybe you are not depressed but you are STRESSED! As technology changes faster than the speed of light – with smartphones, iPads and laptops being the order of the day- people expect everything done NOW. Some people feel the need to be accessible 24/7 and squash more and more into their already hectic day- therefore burning the candle at both ends. Something has to give, and very often it’s our health that does due to incessant stress. Aiming for a stress-free existence is tantamount to wanting to live in a Utopia and indeed some stress is healthy, but we do need to look after ourselves and ensure there is some time for relaxation, spending time with family and friends and being active.
Whether you fear you are battling with chronic depression or quite simple stressed out – exercise can offer a helping hand.
On a practical level, how much exercise should you perform to derive the optimal psychological benefits and what should you be doing?
People usually feel good for about 2-6 hours after an exercise bout, which helps to decrease anxiety, tension and depression. However, to have the best effects, try to incorporate the following 7 tips into your physical activity plan:
- Make it something you enjoy and preferably an activity that doesn’t require mastery, otherwise you could be put off because it is either too much effort, or you feel like a failure if you can’t master it successfully.
- The activity should be very accessible, otherwise when you feel tired and down-hearted – you might feel it is not worth the effort to get there.
- If you are feeling down – opt for group-based sessions since most of us benefit from the support and encouragement of others. Not only will it lift flagging spirits; it might also see the beginning of new, healthy friendships.
- The activity should be regular – at least three sessions a week and more if possible.
- Keep in mind the immediate uplifting effects of exercise – therefore, if you can incorporate even a short walk into each day, you will benefit psychologically.
- That said – exercise for long enough. Where possible – sessions should not be shorter than 30 minutes – and try to extend them to 45 minutes to an hour, where possible, for maximal psychological benefits. Try to accumulate 150 minutes of physical activity per week.
- Think long-term – you will be amazed at how the wonderful benefits encourage you to make a life-long commitment to regular exercise.
- Use outdoor exercise options whenever possible. It is remarkable how exercising outdoors helps you to gain perspective on troubling issues (particularly if you select a beautiful area in which to exercise i.e. a forest walk, a clamber up the mountains, a walk along a stunning beach).
Exercise is also a great way to increase your energy levels and fight off feelings of fatigue and stress. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain thus delivering more oxygen and enzymes important for energy production. It also improves sleep and immune function, elevates overall mood and well-being.
Interestingly – a research study published in the Journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition and Metabolism in July 2013 – showed that the number of times you exercise in a week isn’t as important as getting the recommended 150 minutes of physical activity per week. However, they were only measuring the participant’s risk for diabetes, heart disease and stroke. As an avid runner – my regular running and training sessions provide enormous stress relief for me – freedom of expression and a daily dose of sanity. I would personally hate to have to reserve those benefits to a long run once a week!
Clearly the positive psychological benefits of regular exercise aren’t limited to those who are feeling below par. Everyone can benefit from regular exercise as it improves our sense of well-being, our degree of vigour and vitality and decreases our sense of confusion, lethargy, anxiety and anger.
And all you have to do is to put on your gear and get going for the benefits to unfold.