As we have seen in lack of appropriate exercise, exercise is crucial for mental health, and even in minimal amounts, can be as beneficial as anti-depressants and psychotherapy for depression, without the side effects.Blumenthal, J; Smith, P; Hoffman, B (2012) Is exercise a viable treatment for depression? ACSMs Health Fit J. 2012 July/August; 16(4): 14–21. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3674785/[accessed February 2018] Dinas, P. C., Koutedakis, Y., & Flouris, A. D. (2011). Effects of exercise and physical activity on depression. Irish journal of medical science, 180(2), 319-325.
The right exercise can help balance your hormones and neurotransmitters, improve your digestion and absorption of brain-friendly nutrients, reduce inflammation, calm your nervous system, improve your sleep, etc… all of which can help alleviate mental health issues. However the wrong exercise can do the opposite.
- Getting a minimum of 30-40 minutes of exercise 3-4 times per week is a good target
- It is important to exercise consistently and regularly for the benefits to be felt
- It is crucial that you exercise right, in a way that is adapted to your individual needs and metabolic reserves, taking into account the health of your nervous system and HPA axis
- Too much exercise over a sustained period of time can overtax our system and create stress hormone imbalances and inflammation
- Too little exercise over a sustained period of time can also lead to hormone and neurotransmitter imbalances, and inflammation
The Right Exercise
If we have the following symptoms within 48 hours of exercising, these may be indicative that the exercise is maladapted to our current physical state, and too intense for our nervous system and metabolic reserves:
- Muscle aches and fatigue
- Brain fog
- Poor concentration
- Cold hands and feet
- Poor exercise recovery
If you have any of these symptoms, choose exercise for the vulnerable nervous system, below, and see if that helps.
The following symptoms may be indicative that we are exercising too little or not intensely enough.
- Exhaustion and lethargy
- Poor concentration
- Cold hands and feet
If you have any of these symptoms, choose exercise for the robust nervous system, below, and see if that helps.
Note that many of the symptoms of over and under exercise are the same, so use your common sense, observe your symptoms, and work with a health practitioner to figure out if your symptoms are due to over or under exercise. Testing for stress hormone imbalances can be helpful to figure this out.
If your adrenals are in good shape, and you have no signs of stress hormone imbalances, and if you find that your body responds well to intense exercise with no knock-on effects such as increased anxiety and insomnia, then you are free to indulge in intense exercise such as:
- Interval training
- Power cycling or spinning
- Intense swimming
- Intense weight and resistance training
This type of exercise, three or four times a week, can be very beneficial to your mental health, as long as your nervous system is robust, and you recover quickly and feel better for having exercised in this way.
If your adrenals are taxed, and you are showing signs of stress hormone imbalances, you must favour gentle exercise which will stimulate your para-sympathetic nervous system (rest and digest) and calm your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight).
The following forms of exercise are particularly well beneficial for the vulnerable nervous system and those with HPA axis dysregulation
- Yoga provides the benefits of exercise, such as building strength, stretching, blood and lymph circulation for detoxification, while also calming the nervous system and balancing hormones and neurotransmitters
- Read more about yoga
- Qigong’s slow, deliberate movements calm the nervous system, rebuild depleted energy levels (qi), increase lymph and blood circulation, while building strength and resilience
- Read more about Qigong
- 30 minutes of brisk walking every day can be extremely beneficial to your mental health, as it confers all the benefits of exercise while also calming the nervous system Hyman, M. (2008). The UltraMind Solution. New York: Scribner, p. 315.
- Slow down or take a pause if you’re feeling too out of breath, then pick up the pace when are are breathing comfortably again — after a few weeks of regular practice, you will no longer need to stop as much http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depression/in-depth/depression-and-exercise/art-20046495, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/regular-walking-can-help-ease-depression/
Other beneficial gentle exercise:
- Moderate swimming
- Moderate bicycling
- Moderate weight and resistance training
Be patient and kind to yourself. The only ‘inadequate’ exercise is no exercise at all.
Other ways to enhance your exercise for mental health
There are a few other ways to improve your exercise experience and maximise its benefits.
Exercising outside in nature has the added benefit of exposing us to fresh air, improving our breathing, regulating our circadian rhythms and balancing our neurotransmitters through exposure to natural light.
Practising mind-body therapies can be a good way to exercise, and can complement our exercise program.
As we have seen above, Yoga and qi gong are excellent forms of exercise for people with overactive nervous systems and HPA axis imbalances for instance, and massage can be a good complement to exercise.
Getting enough sleep (usually 7 to 8 hours a night) is essential to giving us the motivation and energy to exercise, and then enabling us to recover from exercise.
In a virtuous circle, adequate exercise adapted to our needs can then improve our sleep.
Having a balanced and healthy diet is essential to giving us the energy and motivation necessary for exercise, and also to enable us to recover after exercise.
Furthermore, in another virtuous circle, exercise helps us to boost our metabolism, digestion and blood circulation to ensure that we digest and absorb essential nutrients for mental health and energy.