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The Amazing Benefits Of Exercise On Mental Health: How Physical Activity Can Help You Manage Stress

In my previous article, I introduced the concept of ‘biopsychosocial’ approaches to wellbeing, and explored diet as an example of how a balanced lifestyle supports good mental health and wellbeing.

However, having a healthy, nutritious diet is not the be-all and end-all; environment, psychological coping strategies, and (in particular) exercise all play key roles in achieving a good state of mind.

But to fully understand the relationship between exercise and mental wellbeing, we first need to look at a hormone called cortisol.

Cortisol: Stress Hormone, Or Rocket Fuel?

Cortisol gets a bad rep.

It’s blamed for poor sleep, weight gain, muscle deterioration, and lethargy. But it’s also cortisol which gets us up in the morning, regulates our weight, blood pressure, and energy levels, while giving us an extra boost during short, intense bursts of activity.

One easy way to remember cortisol’s functions is to think of the ‘Caveman’ lifestyle. When we evolved, our main form of stress was from physical hazards, or difficulty sourcing food – not from fretting over our emails, as often happens today.

If you have too much cortisol, your body assumes that you are under stress from the threat of physical danger, or starvation. It therefore starts to raise your blood pressure, heart rate, and blood glucose levels, to provide the energy and the motivation to run away from a predator or give chase for food.

Cortisol also triggers the body to store more energy as fat, meaning that in the prehistoric environment, we would be able to go for longer periods without food, especially during the winter months.

However, these adaptations are not a good fit for modern society. If your cortisol levels are raised because of work stress, for example, chances are you will not be doing enough exercise to regulate the excess cortisol and adrenaline.

The Connection Between Cortisol and Exercise

Cortisol is released when exercising, and it changes the way the body’s endocrine system functions to encourage you to ‘keep going’ when experiencing stress. During these times, cortisol raises your blood pressure - increasing your heart rate ready to pump oxygenated blood to your active muscles. At the same time, levels of blood glucose are increased to give your muscles more energy to fight or flee.

The longer you exercise, and the more pressure you put on your body, the more cortisol is produced. However, the body also reacts to excess cortisol; its regulatory system (i.e. homeostasis) sets in, balancing the levels of hormones in your body.

Therefore, what gentle to moderate exercise does, is ‘train’ the body to resume homeostasis after experiencing high levels of cortisol. This means that your body will learn to relax quicker after periods of stress, and your overall levels of cortisol will decrease.

How Much Exercise and How Intense?

Exercise is therefore essential for regulating the endocrine system, and as such, ensuring the smooth running of our mental and physical functions.

But how much exercise should we be doing, and to what intensity?

To counter the cortisol produced during exercise, it is important to exercise little and often, and to do it at the right time in your circadian rhythm. It is also preferable to exercise earlier in the day when your cortisol levels are naturally higher, so as not to disrupt your circadian rhythms. Ensuring that you have eaten carbohydrates and protein before your physical activity will also stop you from putting extra stress on your body.

Another technique to keep cortisol levels down is investing in your cool-down period.

Slow movement and deep breathing after physical activity helps to lower cortisol by triggering the parasympathetic nervous system, which restores balance to your cortisol and adrenaline levels after stress or a workout. There is also significant evidence to suggest that listening to slow, calming music relieves high cortisol levels, and may even help your body to recover more quickly following exercise.

Rather than rushing your cool-down, take your time; findings from the University of Nevada suggest that the optimal music tempo for relaxation is around 60 beats per minute, and that for best results, individuals should listen to it for at least 45 minutes, while in a relaxed position.

But What If I Can’t Exercise?

Consider yoga!

That said, if even gentle yoga won’t be possible because of your mobility issues, there are a few adjustments you can make to ease the pressure on your body.

1. Perform actions as slowly as possible

Slowing the pace of your movements right down can help you avoid injury, and aid your focus on taking deep, slow breaths to reduce cortisol levels. Also, holding postures for longer can help you increase your body strength.

2. Focus on what works for you

If you get arthritis in your ankles and knees, it’s likely the Flying Pidgeon yoga pose will not do you much good. Likewise, if you’ve been sat at your desk all day and your back is aching, you might want to stick with Cat-Cow breathing and/or the Cobra stretch, while avoiding the Wheel posture.

Be mindful of how you feel on the specific day - you might have aches and pains you didn’t have yesterday, or you may be lacking in energy.

If you have mobility problems it can be frustrating when they prevent you from exercising, but just do what you can, when you can, even if you’re only able to focus on one area at a time - like your arms and shoulders perhaps.

Listen to your body and do what feels right.

3. Balance

Never only exercise one side, as this is likely to lead to problems with your back and neck. Working out both sides is necessary to keep your spine straight.

4. Don’t collapse into postures

If you maintain a yoga posture with a slumped back, lock your knees for support, or allow your arches to collapse in, you are likely to injure some joints and have problems with your hips and back. Keep your core engaged and make micro-adjustments where necessary to maintain your postures. If it becomes too much, gently disengage and perform a complementary movement.

5. Use a mixture of postures and flows

Using a mix of postures and flows helps to stop the build-up of lactic acid, which causes delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS). Stay mindful, and feel free to stretch and move if you need to.

6. Don’t be afraid to use support

There are plenty of options for increasing support while exercising. For example, you may choose to use resistance bands or yoga pillows, or perhaps do a seated practice instead.

If, even having made these adjustments, yoga will not work for you, don’t panic! There are lots of other things you can do to reduce your stress levels without putting too much pressure on your body.

Some Simple Daily Activities Which Will Help Relieve Stress

Gardening - Being a form of physical activity, gardening helps to reduce cortisol levels - but that’s not all. Soil contains Mycobacterium vaccae, a type of microbe which increases human serotonin levels when inhaled or ingested. Harvesting fruit and veg also causes the brain to release dopamine, making you even happier!

Growing fresh, home-grown fruit and vegetables, and inhaling air while digging, can therefore be hugely beneficial to reducing stress levels.

Cleaning - Cleaning is a great form of exercise, as on average a 150 lb person will burn up to 200 calories while cleaning; with this, comes all the associated benefits of exercise – namely, endorphins are released, and you become fitter.

However, there is a complex relationship between cleaning and stress. On the one hand, both men and women show higher levels of cortisol after doing housework. But living in a cluttered home also leads to higher levels of cortisol.

So how best to combat this? Mindfulness practice could well be the answer.

Researchers from Florida State University published a study on the effects of doing informal Mindfulness practice while washing the dishes. The group which practiced Mindfulness reported greater positive affect, decreases in negative affect, and increased awareness.

Part of the Mindfulness meditation focused on the following saying by Thich That Hanh, a Buddhist poet, spiritual leader, and one of the founders of the Mindfulness movement;

‘While washing the dishes, one should only be washing the dishes… The fact that I am standing here and washing is a wondrous reality. I’m being completely myself, following my breath, conscious of my presence and conscious of my thoughts and actions.’

So next time you need to wash the dishes, don’t bring your baggage to the sink. Instead, try some Mindfulness practice and turn your chores into a free therapy session!

Walking - A study by Hunter et al. (2019) found that just 20 minutes of walking in nature was enough to greatly reduce cortisol levels, and that levels dropped further still when the walk was increased to 30 minutes.

Another study from 2015 has shown that regular walking helps to reduce rumination and may assist with preventing depression, on account of providing ‘positive distractions’ from stressful situations and thoughts.

So next time you’re feeling stressed, why not head outside and walk it out of your system?

Meditation - Meditation is a well-known technique for reducing stress, depression, and anxiety, which has been practiced for thousands of years. There are many aspects to meditation that may be helpful for stress reduction, but studies especially highlight the effects of mindfulness and yogic breathing.

Breathing exercises encourage the parasympathetic nervous system to kick in, which suppresses the release of adrenaline and cortisol. You may choose to use a basic breathing exercise, or combine your breathing exercises with a yoga flow.

Whether you’re looking for deep body relaxation, or a mental declutter, there will almost certainly be a meditation routine that works for you.

Hobbies - From reading to knitting to colouring to gaming, a range of leisure activities can help you to lower your stress levels. Too often, we don’t take time for ourselves, so learn something new or indulge in a hobby you haven’t done for a while. Your body will thank you for it!

Stress is one of those things which accumulates, so whenever you start to feel the tension build up, take the time to do something you love, have a breather, and clear your mind.

It can help you to recharge your batteries and ensure you’re keeping a positive, productive state of mental wellbeing!

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