Exercise to improve mental health and well-being comes across as rhetorical. And to throw a pun in: it’s a no-brainer!
A recent study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry has found exercise can reduce depression globally by as much as 15%! Now, 15% does-not sound like much. However, with data collected worldwide – with a population cohort of 266,939, 15% starts to sound pretty darn good; or for you statistical nerds out there: a neat reliable confidence interval.
Take me through the interrogatives and detail James!
The authors didn’t elude how much physical activity is required to elicit an anti-depressant effect. If you read my last blog, you would know what the recommended physical activity guidelines are. What is more important, is the neuroprotective effect(s) exercise has. And from interpreting the paper: participants were followed longitudinally over six to eight years, which correlates nicely that exercise has a protective buffer to continuous stress. Depression is highly complex; interacting with genes the immune system and the environment. However the solution is simple: all one needs to do is-to huff and puff a little bit – from day to day, to statistically decrease depression!
Tips for using exercise to improve mental health:
Exercise needs to be enjoyable!
- A brisk walk on the beach..
- Kicking the footy with the lads/lasses..
- Or, hitting the gym for a workout or group-fitness class..
The list goes on..
When you choose the exercise that resonates with yourself the likelihood for adherence is higher. Enjoyable activity results in more brain regions becoming active – and neuromodulators releasing sweet beneficial chemicals, affecting your mood, motivation – and thus well-being!
So what are you waiting for? – Lets get moving together!
About the Author
It can be really hard to be motivated to exercise. Much like most people in today’s society, we throw ourselves into a fast paced world where work, family and life are not always balanced. We are typically overtired, our to-do lists overflow and we tend to still say yes to things we maybe shouldn’t. On top of all this, we get told we need to look after ourselves. Eat well, move often, become more mindful etc etc. It is seriously tough stuff!
I know I should but I just don’t feel motivated to exercise!
I have recently gone back to study and I find myself sitting long periods attempting to use my brain (it’s hard work). By the end of the day, I am worn out. I am not sure what you feel like, but I feel like I have run a marathon. All from the confines of my small desk. Although I preach the joy and benefits you get from moving your body, to be honest sometimes it is the last thing I feel like doing. I want to go home, tick off annoying to-do list items and then if I have time I watch Netflix and cuddle with my dog.
Here comes the big but! I am a member of a pretty rocking hockey team and we train consistently on Tuesday and Thursday nights. So, no matter the weather, or how tired I feel, I peel myself off the couch and head out.
The tide turns once I move my body!
During the first 5 or so minutes, I am still not super excited to be running around but then a miracle happens. Slowly, I start feeling better, my energy returns, I don’t feel miserable and I am actually happy. We all tend to leave training in a better mood. I get home and tick off some to-do items and then I happily pass out for the night. I sleep really well, not only because exercise helps regulate my circadian rhythm, but because I know I have made my 10,000+ steps.
Acute changes to exercise: It is not a miracle, it’s science baby
- Exercise acts directly on our central nervous system to increase energy and reduce fatigue. Notably, the improvements in energy and fatigue are not related to increases in aerobic fitness.
- When your heart rate increases acutely it increase the brain’s blood supply. This makes you more alert, enhances your motivation to complete focused tasks, and improves mental clarity. It even creates neurons!
- Acute stress levels decrease post one exercise session thanks to increases in hormones that makes us feel awesome (serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine). If you want to know more, read Jacinta’s blog on exercise, mood and stress.
- Also, psychologically we have achieved a mini-goal of exercising for that day so our confidence thanks to our sense of accomplishment (cue no internal guilt trip)
Some tips to help you beat the motivated to exercise fatigue barrier?
- Get into your active wear. It helps.
- Even if you don’t smash it, just show up. Something is better than nothing and you never know, it may become amazing.
- Ask yourself: Are you really exhausted or are you just tired (exhaustion may need sleep, tiredness/fatigue may need exercise)?
- Have an appointment – whether that is a group class, a specific time in your diary, an appointment with your EP/PT.
- Think about what you will feel like both during and after. You won’t regret it!
About the Author
Let’s start with hard facts:
Physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death due to non-communicable disease (heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancers) worldwide – contributing to over three million preventable deaths annually.
Nearly one in three (29.7%) adults are insufficiently active (less than 150 minutes of physical activity per week), while 14.8% are inactive (no exercise in the last week).
We know exercise is good for us! Even if we don’t really know how or why – we all know it’s good for us, it’s almost in innate knowledge. So why aren’t more of us exercising?! I think it’s fairly safe to say our motivation to exercise is a pretty universal barrier for most of us, so let’s talk about that.
Motivation to Exercise and the F Word
I’m going to go a bit left field here, stick with me… I’ve just finished reading Mark Manson’s book and a lot of what he said resonated with me not just in life, but particularly toward our motivation to exercise.
Failure is a relative concept. It totally depends on how we’re choosing to measure our success towards our goals. And our goals should be driven by our values.
The Link Between Our Values & Motivation to Exercise
Sometimes, where we go wrong is that our values aren’t quite right to help foster a positive, successful experience that builds self-efficacy and growth.
For instance, if I measure my effort at the gym by “do I look like Jennifer Aniston yet?”, I will be self-critical and negative as this is something I don’t really have control over. We have different genetics, different body types, enjoy different types of exercise, have different time constraints (the list goes on). But if I adopt the metric “maintain a regular and consistent exercise routine”, I can live up to my value of “Live a healthy, balanced life”.
Toddlers learning to walk continually fail. They stand up, take half a step, wobble, fall over, and repeat that cycle a few thousand times before they can actually walk. Never do they think “my god, I suck at this, I don’t think walking is for me!”.
However, improvement on anything is based on thousands of tiny failures. And the magnitude of your success is based on how many times you’ve failed at something. If someone is better than you at something, then it’s likely because they have failed at it more than you have. (Or done it many more times, and therefore have refined the skill and have the capacity to do it better!)
Important note: Pain is part of the process! (mentally and physically). You can’t make a muscle without tearing a few fibers!
For most of us, our proudest achievements come in the face of our greatest adversity. I know that when I’m feeling lazy and I squat 20kg I feel alright…but when I manage to push myself and squat 55kg (closer to my 1RM), I feel like I just earnt athlete status! This usually involves some stern positive self-talk at the time, and some muscle soreness the next day. Neither are comfortable, but both build resilience, strength and capacity. Both also build my motivation to exercise!
The “just do SOMETHING” Principle
To come full circle; action isn’t just the effect of motivation; it is also the cause of it.
Most of us only commit to action if we feel a certain level of motivation. And we feel motivation only when we feel enough emotional inspiration. We assume it’s a chain reaction.
The thing is, it’s not a chain, it’s an endless loop.
If we start doing something, this sparks inspiration, and then before we know it, we have motivation, and so we keep doing that thing (all the while, improving and feeling more confident) and then we feel inspired to challenge ourselves a little further, and look at that – more motivation!
Tim Ferris (American author) spoke of a story he once heard about a novelist who wrote over seventy novels. Someone asked how he was able to write so consistently and remain inspired and motivated. He replied, “two hundred crappy words per day, that’s it.”
The idea was that if he forced himself to write two hundred crappy words, more often than not, the act of writing would inspire him; and before he knew it, he’d have thousands of words down on the page.
Take home messages to improve your motivation to exercise:
- Pick small, achievable tasks or challenges
- Do SOMETHING. Something is better than nothing! (and it breeds motivation to do more)
- Make sure the way you’re measuring your success comes down to your actions and input (not other, external factors)
About the Author
Endurance athletes love long distances. You know exactly what I’m talking about. Most endurance guys (and gals) place a premium on long-distance, steady state exercise. With this in mind, when training to improve distance performance, the most typical method of training progression employed is an increase in training distance. I’d like to share with you how gym training for cycling and running can significantly improve many aspects of your performance!
Now, while I would be the first to admit that to get good at running (or cycling, or swimming etc. etc. etc.) long distances you do need to undertake some longer training sessions, they aren’t necessarily the best or only way to improve endurance performance. In fact, I would go as far to suggest that increasing training distance is a somewhat illogical form of progression.
In my mind, if we train by running (or cycling) a greater distance at the same speed (or possibly even slower) that we normally use during training, we are unlikely to get faster. I would argue that getting faster (and being able to maintain that faster speed) is the name of the game, right?!
But fortunately for us there are other training methods that we can use to improve performance.
Some of these are sport specific (which we aren’t going to touch on today), whereas others involve gym based training (which is what we are going to talk about today – in case the title didn’t give it away…).
Gym training for the endurance beast
Strength and endurance training are often viewed at complete opposite ends of the training spectrum – where it is typically suggested that improvements in one will lead to subsequent reductions in the other.
But in reality, it’s not that simple.
When we really consider endurance performance, we should be able to see that it is effectively the ability to maintain or repeat a given force output repeatedly – each step (or each pedal stroke) represents force being applied to the ground.
Which is where getting stronger (or increasing the amount of force we can produce) comes into play.
You see, if someone gets stronger relative to their bodyweight, they can apply more force with each step of the foot, or stroke of the pedal. This means that they will require less relative force each step to maintain the same pace they did prior increasing their strength.
This in turn means that each step uses less energy, as it is at a lower percentage of their maximal force production. As a result, they now have the ability to move faster (and further) each step, despite using the exact same amount of energy.
Why does gym training make me faster?
So, you might be wondering how gym training can make you faster? And to answer that, we are going to have to get our science on for a second (nerd pleasure…).
You see, strength training has repeatedly shown to improve endurance performance in both recreational, and highly trained athletes. In fact, this research has actually shown that including strength training into an endurance training program will improve endurance performance to a much greater degree than endurance training alone.
These improvements have been measured by improvements in movement economy (also known as energy efficiency), increases in velocity at VO2max, and increases in maximal anaerobic running speed.
In short, it clearly demonstrates that strength training will make you faster at a given energy output.
It essentially becomes easier!
These specific strength training interventions tend to result in substantial improvements in strength, with only small increases in lean mass – this actually suggests that the strength increases observed are mainly a result of improved neural efficiency, meaning that they result in significant improvements in relative force production, and you wont really get any heavier.
Additionally, this same training has been shown to cause a shift in muscle fibre type from type IIx (Super explosive muscle fibre type) to type IIa (less explosive, slightly greater endurance capacity) fibre types, which has been shown to further improve endurance capacity.
And to top it off, strength training has also been shown to causes an increase in musculotendinous unit stiffness (say that three times fast).
This increased stiffness results in an improved ability to store elastic energy during eccentric muscle actions (eg. landing each step), which in turn increases concentric muscle force (eg. Pushing off the ground). This results in less energy used per step, and a noticeable increase in movement economy.
So, if were to summarise the science – strength training makes you more efficient.
Not to mention it also has the capacity to improve your ability to absorb force and therefore protect you from injuries (which is a topic I will save for another day)
Applying gym training for cycling and running improvements: the practical implications
So, we know that gym based training can improve our endurance performance – but how should we use this information.
Well, I would suggest including two full-body strength sessions per week into your training would be a great place to start. This would be enough to stimulate improvement in strength, and therefore improvements in efficiency.
With this in mind, the focus should be on large compound movements such as squats, deadlifts and lunges to improve lower body strength, working within strength based rep ranges (such as 6×3, 5×4, 4×6). These rep ranges have been shown to elicit neural based strength adaptations, while minimising potential muscle growth – meaning they are the perfect way to maximise your strength without increasing your body weight.
I would also strongly recommend the inclusion of loaded carries, some pulling movements (inverted rows, dumbbell rows etc.), and some direct trunk stability work if time permits, as these can go a very long way to strengthening the muscles of the upper back and core, improving posture and preventing injuries.
If you are not sure where to start, or have some questions around introducing strength training into your regime, drop us a comment and we will get back to you ASAP!
Hoff, Jan, Arne Gran, and Jan Helgerud. “Maximal strength training improves aerobic endurance performance.” Scandinavian journal of medicine & science in sports 12.5 (2002): 288-295.
Kraemer, WILLIAM J., et al. “Compatibility of high-intensity strength and endurance training on hormonal and skeletal muscle adaptations.” Journal of applied physiology. (1995). Vol 78, no.3.
This article has also been posted in our sister page.
About the Author
With the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games starting this blog is a timely reminder to endorse the benefits of physical activity.
As the Australian public cheer on their favorite athletes from the comfort of her/his living room an oxymoron of sorts is this:
People are likely to be sitting on their glutes all day rather than getting out and using them! So while the Commonwealth Games is displaying the epitome of fitness, we are more likely to be sedentary and less physically active while we watch the athletes.
An evidence to practice gap in physical activity
A recent perspective paper in the Medical Journal of Australia discusses an “evidence-practice gap” of physicians. This means that while the evidence is strong in regards to the benefits of physical activity, there is an inadequacy in discussing and prescribing it to patients.
NOW, in no way am I slanting a bias towards exercise physiologist/scientists. However, physicians are typically the first line of contact for patient care, and thus, with physical inactivity being the fourth leading cause of morbidity/mortality worldwide (1) my premise is thus justified right?
The authors found that physicians who were themselves physically active, were more adept at discussing exercise over physicians who are physically inactive (3).
The benefits of physical activity are very well known (2). I am an evidence based analytical thinker, so when the evidence is very strong and robust – the likelihood for adherence is highly likely. Of course, there are “health professionals” and unfortunate reality television shows; that promote unhealthy physical activity.
Which is why I challenge the reader to ask her/his medical/health professional about the recommended physical activity guidelines. Do you know yourself? What the minimum physical activity guidelines are? What if your job entails eight hours of sitting a day… how much physical activity should one be achieving, based on evidence?
So many interrogatives!
So in summary, here’s some tips to help you increase your physical activity:
- Query your medical and allied health team about the physical activity guidelines.
- Ask your medical and allied health team – “am I safe to move”?
- Lastly, trust your source of information, including mine – by doing further research, while being mindful for confirmation biases.
Enjoy the games, and cheers to moving more!
- Lee IM, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, et al. Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy. Lancet 2012; 380: 219-229.
- Pedersen BK, Saltin B. Exercise as medicine – evidence for prescribing exercise as therapy in 26 different chronic diseases. Scand J Med Sci Sports2015; 25: 1-72.
About the Author
Everybody feels stressed at some point. But how do we deal with it? 75% of Australians admit that stress adversely effects their physical health and 64% report an impact on their mental health (APA, 2014). For 86% of us, watching TV or movies is our chosen coping strategy for stress and only 55% of us are getting an adequate amount of physical activity (Australian Health Survey 2011-12). So exercise, mood and stress; what’s the link? Here’s the science to support why exercise should be our go-to for those stressful situations.
You know those days where you wake up in the morning, a bunch of crazy happens and then you go to sleep (way too late)… Maybe some of this feels familiar; you’re up to your eye balls in reports at work. The kids have basketball training tonight. You forgot to get dinner out. It’s your mum’s birthday next week. You said you would help the school with their fundraiser this Friday. You promised your friend you would catch up for lunch on the weekend. You still haven’t found time to exercise, like you planned. Feeling stressed? How’s your mood?
A Brief Bio About Stress
Stress comes in many shapes and sizes, acute and chronic; social stress, physical stress, metabolic stress… just to name a few.
There is a psychological state of stress, and a physiological response to stress – it’s important to distinguish these. One is the external stressors of life, such as a looming deadline at work. The other is our internal state of stress, like when we feel we are stressed out of our minds and cannot think straight!
I want to talk about how we can manipulate one by manipulating the other.
The body’s stress response is a built-in gift from evolution, without it we wouldn’t be here today. This complex alarm system (the panic button being the amygdala), is more commonly known as the fight of flight response.
I’m going to try and explain how this process actually works in our brain using cute pictures, it gets a bit nerdy, but stick with me.
The Neurophysiology of Stress (the simple version)
Basically, the short version is: our amygdala signals the adrenal gland to release a few different hormones, such as adrenaline, which causes increases in blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. These hormones also act on the pituitary gland which triggers the release of cortisol into our immune system. The amygdala then signals the hippocampus to start recording memories (so we remember to avoid this in future), and the prefrontal cortex assesses whether this is an actual threat requiring action.
Humans are unique in the fact that danger doesn’t have to be clear and present to illicit a stress response, we can create it ourselves. The mind is so powerful we can actually set off our stress response just by imagining we’re in a stressful situation. You see how this can start to get unhealthy…
But just as we can get ourselves into a stressful state, we can get ourselves out.
The purpose of the fight-or-flight response is to mobilise us to act, so physical activity is the natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. When we exercise in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings have evolved to do over the past several million years.
Your Prescription for exercise, mood and stress
If I prescribe you 1 x exercise session per day, you should see a reduction in stress symptoms and an improvement in mood immediately…
Why is that?
Now that you’re all over the neurophysiological mechanisms that are behind the stress we feel, how exactly does exercise improve our mood and reduce our stress?
- Exercise triggers the production of more insulin receptors, thus lowering blood glucose levels
- Exercise produces FGF-2 and VEGF which build new capillaries and expand the vascular system in the brain
- Exercise increases BDNF production, which is responsible for neurogenesis: the creation of new neurons
- Exercise increases serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine (feel good hormones!)
And on a physiological level, exercise can improve the stress we feel in our bodies by:
- Relaxing the resting tension of muscle spindles, breaking the stress-feedback loop to the brain
- Increasing the efficiency of the cardiovascular system, lowering blood pressure
Exercise does a whole range of juicy things to our body and our mind, and it’s virtually impossible to impact one without impacting the other – now you see why!
Just keep in mind that the more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly.
If you’re interested in reading more about this, pick up a copy of Psychiatrist, John Ratey’s book: SPARK; the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. This blog is based on the concepts discussed in Chapter 3; Stress. It’s full of stories and fascinating information about the connections between exercise and your brain, in an easily digestible format.
About the author