Step 4 of my optimum mental wellness plan is RECONNECT – with your body, socially and with nature and green space, because these have all been demonstrated to have a beneficial effect on mental health.
We spend much of our lives rushing from one thing to the next and many of us have become disconnected with our bodies and our environments.
It is well documented that sedentary behaviour is linked to poor mental health, and today I’m going to talk about reconnecting with your body in the form of physical activity.
Reconnecting with your body and moving it every day for 30 minutes can be hugely beneficial to your mental wellness and essential for your physical health.
3 surprising reasons why physical activity is extremely beneficial for mental health:
You have probably heard of feel-good endorphins being released after vigorous exercise, but I get that isn’t for everyone, especially if you’re feeling low. Often when we feel depressed or anxious, exercise is the last thing we feel like, but the good news is that it absolutely does not have to be vigorous exercise to have a hugely beneficial impact (in fact, this type of exercise can potentially have the opposite effect!).
1. It protects the hippocampus
The hippocampus is a structure in the brain which plays an important role in many processes including learning, memory, anxiety, and regulation of the stress response. Its optimum function is therefore key to our mental health and a reduction in its size has been shown in people with depression.
A shrunken hippocampus can lead to impaired cognition and a lack of emotional resilience, but it is one of only two areas of the adult brain known to be able to repair and rebuild. A healthy diet and good lifestyle choices can have a hugely beneficial effect on this process.
Physical exercise in particular has been shown to help grow new hippocampus cells by increasing the production of something called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) a type of protein which acts as a trigger for their growth.
2. It supports the glymphatic system
One way that even gentle exercise may improve depression is via a recently discovered system of vessels in the nervous system called the glymphatic system.The glymphatic system delivers nutrients to your brain and helps clear out its waste products, such as old cells. Research is emerging that depressed people may have an under functioning glymphatic system, which can drive an undernourished brain and a build-up of potentially inflammatory compounds in the brain. Regular exercise – even gentle walking – has been shown to improve the function of the glymphatic system and could therefore help build better mental health.
3. It buffers psychological stress
Physical movement can counter the effects of psychological stress by increasing the resilience of your overall stress response, making you feel more in control of your emotions. Your body doesn’t differentiate between physical and mental stressors, and the hormones and neurotransmitters released are very similar. Regular exercise might therefore increase your ability to buffer common daily stressors, making you more adaptive and less anxious and ultimately boosting your mood.
Forming new habits
We are creatures of habit and if you are new to physical activity, or feel you don’t have time, ‘piggy backing’ some increased movement onto exiting habits is a useful strategy. For instance, you could do some stretches whilst the kettle is boiling, walk around the house whilst brushing your teeth, or automatically go for a 15-minute stroll after lunch and dinner.
Here are some more ideas to incorporate movment into your day
- Choose something you enjoy so that you are much more likely to stick to it.
- Invest in a pedometer or smart watch and try aiming to increase your steps by 100 each day.
- Set an alarm on your phone to remind you to get up from your desk and move.
- Join an online class, such as yoga or tai chi.
- Put some uplifting music on and dance around the house.
Remember that new habits can take time to build and starting small is the best way to make sustainable positive changes – consistency is the key, even if it is short periods of movement – they can soon stack up and have a positive effect.