If you don’t currently do about 30minutes of moderate intensity activity every day of the week, you’re in the majority of Australians. As a nation, we generally don’t undertake the amount of physical activity that we should and that’s good for us to do.
Exercise has been shown repeatedly to have a number of physical health benefits and mental health benefits. You may know that it can lead to an increase in your exercise tolerance (not feeling exhausted so quickly), a reduction in body weight, a reduction in blood pressure, changes to the ratios of “good and ”bad” cholesterol and increase in insulin sensitivity (which is good news if you have risk factors for Diabetes).
But did you know that it can also lead to marked improvements in mental health? Some studies suggest that regular exercise at the right intensity can lead to effects like being prescribed a low-dose antidepressant medication; and even if you’re using antidepressant medication and receiving psychological treatment, there’s evidence to suggest that approaching mental health issues from a number of angles yields better results.
If you find that your mental health is not in as good shape as you’d like, the first thing you should do is make an appointment and chat with your GP. But you can also use physical activity and exercise to help.
Don’t be put off by the word “exercise” – it doesn’t mean you have to sweat it out in a gym, or run 5 kilometres every day. In fact undertaking a variety of physical activities is often best – do a gym class if you like it, run, walk, swim, cycle, climb hills and stairs, join a soccer team, netball team, grab some friends and do a mud run together.
How does all this help? It’s important to remember that your body is a complex bio-mechanical machine. It’s made to do work! The sort of work we’re made to do is pushing, pulling, lifting, dragging, carrying, throwing and kicking but in 21st century western life we rarely do this in our daily work. We need to make time to do it.
In the same way that if you leave your car undriven for weeks or months at a time, it will get a flat battery, flat spots on the tyres, sticky brakes and rust in the panels, our bodies will begin to lose their good condition if we don’t use them the way they should be used.
Some signs that you need to increase your amount of daily activity could include:
- Knowing that you have a sedentary job and sedentary lifestyle
- Being told by your GP that your blood pressure, resting heart rate, or total cholesterol are higher than ideal
- Knowing or being told that you’re overweight or gaining weight
- Feeling “out of condition” and exhausted by running for a bus or a train or running around with your kids.
- Feeling stiff when you wake up in the morning
- Being less flexible than you used to be
- Noticing a decline in your mental health or even your ability to deal with the daily challenges of life
If you recognize that you need to make a change to your level of daily activity, here are some tips to get you started:
Fitness trackers and their apps are great for building awareness – they won’t make you exercise but they will help you measure accurately what your daily activity level is.
Find a friend or family member to exercise with – do it together and encourage the other person as well as letting them encourage you
If you struggle with motivation, think about going to gym classes or getting a Personal Trainer for a while to help you build the good habit of daily activity
Plan exercise and activity times in your calendar – being spontaneous and flexible is important but if you don’t consciously plan to change a habit, it won’t change.
Start small – if you’re currently not doing any daily exercise activity, even 10 minutes a day can start to build a foundation of difference.
Track your progress – this might be body weight, distance you can walk or run, time it takes, feedback from your GP about your health or some other indicator that matters to you.
Have a goal – identify something that you’re working towards that will keep you encouraged – it may be losing a certain amount of weight, or fitting into a particular item of clothing that hasn’t fitted well for a while.
Listen to your body! If you’re starting to get any unusual aches or pains, stop what you’re doing and see your GP.