Exercising our mental health through brain chemistry

The Better Body Group owner Chris Wharton discusses the current state of your mental health, and the importance to focus on the things that we can control.

The past 12 months have unquestionably been a crazy time for pretty much everyone. We’ve all been affected one way or another whether its work, home schooling, putting on weight or in some tragic cases, the loss of loved ones.

Whatever the last year has looked like for you, it’s important not to be too hard on yourself. My job involves giving people guidance on how to improve their health and wellbeing, and I can tell you now, I’ve certainly had my fair share of down days since the pandemic came crashing into our lives last March.

With so much going on that we have zero control over, it’s hardly surprising that depression and anxiety levels are at a 20-year high. Whatever your current state of mental health, it’s important to focus on the things that we can control. But how?

Purposely alter your brain chemistry.

Before we go any further, these modifications have been studied in depth and are backed by current literature, so if anyone would like some advice on how/where to get more information please email me and I’ll point you in the right direction.

Firstly, it’s important to establish that our mood, happiness, and feeling of mental health is entirely controlled by our brain chemistry; the cocktail of hormones inside our head. And whilst we have no control over external factors, this brain chemistry can be manipulated by the activities we take part in, the foods we eat, work, stress, sleep etc.

We call these ‘lifestyle modifications’

Our primary aim is to engineer the right cocktail of hormones to help us feel optimal.

I want you to imagine trying to develop and run a piece of computer software without inputting the correct coding. At the very best it wouldn’t work properly, and worst case it wouldn’t work at all. The same thing applies to the human body. Provide it with the wrong inputs (in this case, lack of exercise, poor nutrition and minimal sleep) and you will be running sub-optimally, resulting in an increased state of stress, poor brain function, lack of concentration, energy levels etc. and in more serious cases, feelings of anxiety, apathy, and depression.

Whilst I’m not suggesting a quick workout and a super food smoothie is going to make all of your worries disappear, it’s clear that by carving in a well-structured exercise and nutrition regime we can expect improvements in mood, symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved sleep, improved markers of health and feelings of optimism.

Let’s breakdown exactly how this works.

  1. Mood

First and foremost, exercise can immediately improve your mood. Anyone who has ever completed a decent workout will have felt this. Exercise increases the production of endorphins, a type of neurotransmitter that relieves pain and stress, more commonly known as ‘runners high’.

It also increases the production of serotonin (the same hormone targeted by anti-depressants), dopamine and norepinephrine all of which are responsible for regulating your mood.

Simply put – exercise can immediately make you feel happier!

  1. Alleviate depression and prevent relapse.

Exercise has been shown to not only be comparable to anti-depressant medication, but much more effective for preventing longer term depressive episodes.

Interestingly this has proven to be even more reliable with those suffering from diabetes- who are more likely to suffer from depression. Given that diabetes and obesity are strongly linked, exercise has proven to be an extremely effective weapon in fighting both.

  1. Regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations.

After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise. 

Exercise in many ways acts like an exposure treatment. Instead of associating the feeling of anxiety with danger we learn to associate it with safety.

  1. Exercise improves the length and quality of the deep, restorative stages of sleep.

If you train regularly this will have a massive carry over into your sleep pattern. When you are well rested you will have much higher energy levels and feel far less stress.

  1. Health

Exercise reduces the risk all nearly all chronic disease and morbidity. Periods of sickness and ill health have an undoubtedly negative effect on your mental health. It is safe to assume that an absence of ill health can help normalise and/or improve mood and happiness.

  1. Confidence

Having a regular exercise regime can also boost confidence, improve feelings of self-control, reduce feelings of stress, increase feelings of accomplishment and provide a shared group experience building social bonds.

How much exercise does it take?
The minimum you should be aiming for is 150 minutes a week, an equivalent of 30 minutes a day.

Something worrying I hear every day without fail is that ‘I don’t have time to exercise’. Whilst I understand that most of us are ‘time poor’, If this is you, you need to get a grip! EVERYONE can (and should) prioritise time for exercise regardless of how busy you are. You are doing yourself and your family an injustice by suggesting otherwise.

Carve time into your routine to get the job done.

What types of exercise are best?
A study published in 2018 examined the link between mental health and physical exercise within a sample of 1.2 million people. Unsurprisingly; all exercise types were associated with a lower mental health burden.

Interestingly, team sports and Interval training were shown to have the highest carryover with regards to mental health improvements and the benefits seem to be most prevalent in sessions of 30 minutes and above.

The study also found that exercise that is higher intensity provides a more sustained euphoric feeling as well as improved markers of fitness such as heart and lung function.

From experience I would say that the best exercise for you is the one that you most enjoy. If you like dancing – go dancing. Ultimately, we’re aiming to create an enjoyable and sustainable routine.

For those suffering with extremely poor mental health, even starting an exercise regime can feel overwhelming – start small- even a 10-minute walk is progress.

Nutrition
The foods we eat also have a huge impact on the way we feel. This topic deserves its own article, but in short, focus on eating a wide variety of nutrient dense foods; vegetables, fruits, lean meats and fish, complex carbohydrates and fibre, and avoid removing whole food groups or any very low-calorie diet plans.

It’s also worth reducing alcohol intake or removing it altogether from your diet. Alcohol is after all, a known depressant, and can massively alter your mood and brain chemistry.

Summary

  • If you’re struggling with your mental health always seek the advice of a qualified professional. You are not alone by any means and there is lots of help and support available
  • Carve time into your routine for exercise that you enjoy
  • Aim to do something that works you hard at least 3-5 times per week
  • Combine this with a high step count throughout the week. Walk more!
  • Aim to eat nutrient dense foods
  • Prioritise sleep
  • Remove or reduce alcohol intake
  • To cover all bases, include exercise that provides distraction, self-efficacy and social interaction (when we’re allowed out of course). Team sports, using a coach, and taking a class will all do the job.
  • This article applies to EVERYONE. The benefits of improved mental health through exercise are available for you no matter what your age, ability, budget or fitness level!

If you would like help with anything mentioned above or advice on where to start, please feel free to contact Chris on 01732 451979 or email at enquiries@betterbodygroup.co.uk