Healthy body, healthy mind

Hannah Harn looks into building good mental health through physical fitness


Whether you cycle to work every day or are a professional athlete, routine exercise is a great way to keep in shape. However, studies show regular exercise and physical activity are just as good for your brain as they are for your body. Regular physical activity and exercise have been proven to increase reports of positive mental health of all ages.

A 2018 study in the Irish Journal of Medical Science found that, compared with those who reported meeting recommended physical activity requirements, participants who reported performing no physical activity or not meeting the minimum amount were three times more likely to report negative mental health.

Anthony Kelly, a Fitness Instructor at Dublin City University, says the best exercise routine for you will depend on your personality. “If it’s something you’re interested in, it’s going to make you happier,” he says. “If a teenager likes basketball and that’s what he’s playing he’s going to get more out of it [mentally]. But if it’s something you don’t like doing then you’re going to build up those stress hormones and it’s not going to be as good for you.”

Exercise’s impact on the brain is mainly through hormone changes. “When you exercise, oxytocin and serotonin get released, as does cortisol,” explains Anthony. Cortisol is a stress-related hormone, but when exercising it stays in muscles rather than travelling to the brain. “Your hormone levels change. And the more you do it the more you get used to it. Runners have to run longer, weightlifters find they have to lift more.”

According to the Royal College of Physicians of Ireland, people who have been diagnosed with severe mental illnesses can live 15 to 20 years less than the rest of the population. While it is not a standalone cure, exercise has been shown to help both prevent and treat mental illness as well as improve physical fitness. Evidence has also pointed to physical activity’s role in helping to reduce symptoms of conditions like mild depression, schizophrenia, and ADHD.

One major example of the benefits Anthony pointed to was in a study on young inmates. “They were having trouble getting them to come to class so they added rowers and treadmills, and they’d bring them in at half-seven every morning to exercise,” he explains. “By the end of the year they were more willing to come in on their own because they developed a habit. They were less troublesome, less argumentative and they were more willing to study and change their work ethic.

“That exercise at the start of the day helped break down communication barriers, and it helped them learn.”

Mental Health Ireland has also pointed to exercise as a way to help boost self-esteem, improve concentration, and help sleep. According to MHI, exercise can also provide a natural energy boost and encourage a healthier appetite in addition to reducing tension and stress.

According to Anthony, it is also incredibly important to build up fitness habits early on. “Teenagers are already going through hormonal changes,” he says. “From what I’ve seen, girls get a better benefit if they start earlier because they go through those changes earlier, while boys get more later because it’s easier for them to pick it up later, like in a sport. It’s harder for girls to pick up those habits later on.”

RCPI also advises reducing the total time spent sitting every day, whether that’s at a desk or on the couch, implementing breaks when sitting for extended periods of time. If your daily routine involves sitting for more than eight hours, consider adding in a little extra physical activity to balance the two. If the idea of working out alone does not sound like fun, invite a family member or a friend to join in.

For those who are deskbound all day, even just interacting with others can help create the energy to exercise. “Most people take it for granted, but just talking to people,” he says. “Interaction creates energy and that energy can be transferred into another activity. Get out of doing things alone all the time. Go for a walk. The teachers I work with will all go for a walk after school, and a walking club can turn into a jogging club or a sport. People can make their own pace.”

Nutrition is also really important to maintaining a happy mind and body. “Eating better avoids foods that stress out your body,” Anthony stresses. “If you’re feeling lethargic from eating acidic foods and you don’t have alkaline foods in your system you’re not going to have the energy to go out and exercise.”

Over time, the benefits of regular fitness change, but are no less important. As people age, exercise becomes important not only for maintaining a healthy lifestyle, but for the social interaction it provides. “The older we get the less interaction we have with people we feel are our friends,” Anthony says. “Exercising [on teams or at a gym] provides a social interaction.”

Anthony works with a programme called Active for Life, where older people who have conditions like heart disease or cancer can exercise with people their age. “They come in annoyed but then they come back for the social aspect,” he says. “They engage, and the exercise is what gives them the energy to come back afterward and engage with each other.”

However, there are pitfalls in regular fitness. One danger, especially for young people, is social media. Fitness bloggers on apps like Instagram, according to Anthony, are not always showing the real lifestyle. “They’re showing off a fake one,” he says. “It’s very impactful for young people. It’s not good for teenagers to be seeing all these edited bodies. A 13-year-old shouldn’t be trying to recreate a 21-year-old body because it’s not physically possible for them.”

Anthony also advises not pushing too hard. “If you push yourself to 80% of what you can do, that’s great,” he says. “Younger people can push themselves to 90%, and then leave the other 10% to have fun. Everybody has their own inner workings, and not everybody is as happy as they make out.”

Similarly, while they may be abundant and easy to access, don’t worry if fitness apps are not effective. “Some people find it great because it helps them and they watch what they put in their bodies and it can help,” Anthony says. “But if you’re not someone who takes a lot of notes it may not be suited to you. And it can be negative if it turns into a competition for people who aren’t competitive.”

For those with access to a personal trainer, Anthony feels the best way to make the most of the opportunity is to be specific. “Have something in mind of what you want,” he says. “If you don’t have an objective, the goal won’t be reached. Then your trainer can design a routine that can help you reach that point, and you can work with your trainer to make it what works for you.”

Overall, physicians generally recommend looking to fit in around 30 minutes to an hour of moderate physical exercise and activity every day. If 30 minutes of exercise seems like an impossible task in today’s busy world, there are lots of easy ways to get in a daily dose of physical activity. Something small is better than nothing, as even small increases in regular physical activity bring positive health benefits.

However, every group’s needs is different. RCPI also advises parents to provide young children at least 60 minutes of active play, and at least three hours for pre-school age children. Setting personal and family goals can help make exercise part of the daily routine, and there are dozens of apps and gadgets to make tracking your progress easier. For more personalised help, discuss your goals with your family doctor or another health professional.