In my experience, observationally we are seeing more and more people suffering from mental health issues in our society. According to the black dog institute, one in five Australians (20%) aged 16-85 experience a mental illness in any year and almost half (45%) of Australians will experience mental illness in their lifetime. The onset of mental health is typically around mid-to-late adolescence in Australia and the 18-24 year old cohort have the highest prevalence of mental health than any other age group. The most common mental illnesses are depression, anxiety and substance abuse and they often occur in combination. (blackdoginstitute.org.au). Mental health can have a huge impact on many facets of your life and those around you. Your mental health influences how you think, feel, and behave in daily life. It also affects your ability to cope with stress, overcome challenges, build relationships, and recover from life's setbacks and hardships.
Sometimes, we ignore the emotional messages that tell us something is wrong and try toughing it out by distracting ourselves or self-medicating with alcohol, drugs, or self-destructive behaviors. We bottle up our problems in the hope that others won’t notice. We hope that our situation will eventually improve on its own. Or we simply give up—telling ourselves this is “just the way we are.” BUT it doesn't have to be that way!
People adopt different strategies in order to cope with and/or promote better mental health and resilience. One of the best strategies can be exercise! Dr Nicola Burton, senior research fellow in the University of Queensland's school of human movement studies, says when it comes to exercise "we're not only talking about preventing poor mental health or treating it, but promoting good mental health. Even if you don't have depression or anxiety or a serious mental illness that you want help managing, you can enhance your wellbeing and vitality." (http://www.abc.net.au). So how does exercise promote good mental health? (source https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/exercise-and-mental-health)
- Regular exercise can help you sleep better. And good sleep helps you regulate your moods
- Exercise can improve your sense of control, coping ability and self-esteem. People who exercise regularly often report how good achieving a goal makes them feel.
- Exercise can distract you from negative thoughts and provide opportunities to try new experiences.
- It offers an opportunity to socialise and get social support if you exercise with others.
- The levels of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, stress hormones and endorphins, change when you exercise.
- Exercise increases your energy levels.
- Physical activity can be an outlet for your frustrations.
- Exercise can reduce skeletal muscle tension, which helps you feel more relaxed.
Whilst I don't have a diagnosed mental health illness, I most certainly suffer from anxiety at times. This often occurs if I am overwhelmed, have things going on that are out of my control (like trying to finish on time when working as a paramedic!) or when sleep and routine are compromised. Most people will have far better insight and ability to rationalise and compartmentalise issues when they have good sleep. Exercise forms a huge part of my life and the older I get, the more I realise I do it far more holistically than just trying to keep fit. For example, I often get home late at night after working for Ambulance Victoria. My kids still need to be at school and have lunches made so irrespective of what time I got home, I still need to be up at the same time each day, It is often during this time that I least feel like exercising however it is also the time when I need it most! I always make a consious effort to work out on these days as pre-workout, I am usually tired, lethargic and apathetic. After working out, I feel a huge sense of gratification and feel far more optimistic about the day ahead. I am more productive, make better food choices and I also have an overall better sense of self. I pride myself on being a positive role model and if I don't continually invest in promoting good self care, I feel as though my influence on others may be more negative.
So how much exercise do you need? There is limited data to suggest how much and what sort of exercise you need. While intense exercise may have greater benefits, it's better to start at a low level and gradually build up than aim too high and risk being turned off. Thirty minutes brisk walking a few times a week is a good general starting point. You don't have to do the 30 minutes all in one go, but it's best if you do it in blocks no shorter than 10 minutes. Remember, exercise should also be fun and enjoyable! You are far more likely to stick to an exercise routine if you enjoy it. :)