You don’t need to be a gym rat to get enough exercise and improve your overall health. But how can you stop avoiding physical activity and embrace the benefits? And what are those benefits? Dr. Joseph Firth is bringing you the answers! Dr. Firth has been working with helping young people with mental health problems to engage in regular exercise and to adopt healthy lifestyles. In our interview for The Wellness Starter Pack, we discuss why exercise is so important and how it can help improve your mental health. He also shares some great tips and recommendations on how to get started and how to make a new routine stick.
Why is exercise so important?
Exercise is important for physical health. Everybody knows it’s good for the body, that’s very well established. Increasing evidence is now showing how exercise is also beneficial for mental health. What is good for the body is also good for the mind. We’ve all heard the saying “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. And exercise is shown to have multiple different benefits across the body and the brain.
Could you name some of the mental health benefits of exercise that people may not be immediately aware of?
Obviously, physical fitness is a lot more than just having a six-pack. The major reason why we should all be exercising is for our mental health. This even applies to people with good mental health. It helps to lift your mood on a daily basis, it improves your actual brain functioning and the way your brain works. For people with poor mental health, exercise has now been shown to be effective across a broad range of psychiatric conditions. Exercise is beneficial for depression and anxiety, and even for severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. There’s more and more evidence about the ways that different forms of exercise can help with these conditions.
When people are really into exercise, they might be familiar with terms such as endorphins. We hear it’s great for mental health but why exactly is it that these chemicals help?
There are multiple neurobiological pathways through which exercise benefits the brain, and we’ve all heard of the common ones. But more recently there is more evidence around BDNF, which is the primary neurotrophic hormone in the brain. This is a chemical that runs throughout the entire body, which is responsible for producing new neurons when released. When we engage in physical activity, particularly in aerobic exercises, our BDNF gets released almost immediately. Even one little session can boost your levels of BDNF, so that’s another benefit. Maintaining high levels of physical activity actually stops brain decline that occurs due to aging. It helps stimulate the new neurons in the brain. Also, new studies have shown that one session of intense exercise can activate the endocannabinoid system, which is one of the major reward mechanisms in the brain. It makes us feel good.
If someone wants to start exercising more, are there a particular number of sessions they should be averaging per week?
You should be doing what works for you. I would encourage people to try and engage in types of activities that really get the heartbeat going. Something that feels like it’s increasing your fitness. Things that actually would be considered a workout are going to be more beneficial than low-intensity activities. That said, low-intensity activities are still better than nothing. If you feel like all you are able to do is go for a short walk, that is still far more preferable to do than to become a couch potato.
Is there any type of exercise that is better than other types?
The type of exercise you do is not that important. There’s been lots of research showing that jogging or cycling works as well as weight training. Whatever works for you in terms of a good fitness workout that you can do in a group or as an individual. It would be impossible to say who’s the best athlete in the Olympics. Is it the runners, the swimmers or the rowers? They are all super-fit just in different ways. Just pick something that works well for you.
A lot of people struggle with sticking to exercise. Do you have any tips and recommendations on how to keep up with exercise routine and make a healthy habit out of it?
Do you have any suggestions that could make working out more inspiring?
As you probably already know, music can be quite powerful, even for your workouts. Depending on what types of music you’re into, you might need to change it up a little bit around your sessions. There’s been a lot of studies showing that upbeat and high tempo music helps you actually feel in the mood for physical activity, which makes sense. Even if that’s not particularly your style, try to find something that might give you a little bit of a boost. Especially if you’re feeling the lack of motivation.
Is there anything that could help people who may be struggling with mental illness and are barely able to get out of bed in the morning? How could they try and immerse themselves into exercise step by step?
You should start small, pick a lower intensity activity like going for a 10-minute walk every day. Some people find it easier to pick a high-intensity activity and just do it once a week. Just make sure you get out and about. You might try to do one short gym session a week, and build that up over time to several sessions. You don’t need to overdo it to experience the mental health benefits of exercise. Just like the physical benefits, it’s only up to a certain threshold. Once you’re healthy and fit, you don’t have to do tons more to become super healthy.
It’s the same for the brain. You just need to aim towards that moderate level of physical activity in order to obtain the maximum benefits. Try to remember that exercise is not as bad as it seems when you’re thinking about it laying in bed. It’s always easier when you’re actually doing it. You just need to get started and give it a go, you can always stop if you want. You can also involve your friends, people who can support you when you’re struggling.
Friends can be super helpful. You could even skip the gym and just take a walk in the park, and have a nice chat.
Exactly. If you’re experiencing mental health problems, a lot of that is often caused by social isolation or feeling lonely. When you’re doing an exercise socially, you not only get the physical benefits but also the social support benefits. That’s just as important as exercise for mental health. Killing two birds with one stone, you’ll be more likely to keep it up!
Musicians have a crazy schedule. They might have 9-5 jobs, make music in the evening, late-night gigs, full-day sessions during the weekends, and extensive touring. Is there any type of exercise that could give them the most bang for their buck? Maybe they have 10-20 minutes a day and want to stay fit, but their schedule is hectic.
We’ve just published a review showing how HIIT (high-intensity interval training) is beneficial for symptoms of depression and for people with mental illness. And it can be as short as 1-minute bursts four or five times. You can do it on a bicycle in a hotel gym, you can do bodyweight exercises like push-ups and lunges… A little intense workout that gets your blood flowing and gets your heartbeat up can be just as beneficial for your mood as for physical fitness.
If you’re going on holiday or if you are unable to work out for some reason, it’s important to remember that the benefits of exercise are not about just missing that one session, but more about the lifestyle of adopting it. If you’re too exhausted or you’re too busy doing other things, don’t feel too bad about skipping exercise. As long as you know in the back of your head that you’re trying to adopt this as part of your lifestyle, you can still get the benefits eventually.
What would be the very first steps for someone who wants to adopt this healthier lifestyle?
The first step that I’d recommend is to think about physical activities you’ve enjoyed in the past, and give that another go. Going back to something that you’ve done before, something that you feel familiar with can be a really good starting point. Even though it sounds obvious for most people. If you are receiving mental health care, you can also often talk to your GP about local physical activity initiatives like walking groups or sports groups. You can even get physical activity on referral, a local gym membership, and perhaps have a talk with a personal trainer. Nowadays, more and more personal trainers are interested in helping people with physical training for mental health. So don’t be shy about joining a gym! Mental health awareness is higher than ever and there are people who are willing to help you reap the benefits.
Dr. Joseph Firth completed his Ph.D. at the University of Manchester (UK), examining the benefits of physical exercise as a treatment for young people with psychosis. Since, he has published extensively in leading medical journals, on the clinical use of exercise and nutritional interventions for improving both physical and mental health outcomes in people with psychiatric conditions. His work has been featured on BBC One, Huffington Post, Fox News, and Daily Mail.