We first spoke about this topic in conversation with Stylist. So let’s go over exactly how physical activity and mental health goes together.
The first thing to note is that the links between mental health and physical activity have been proven over and over again to be effective, however, it isn’t as simple as some might think.
For example, doing a physical activity that we enjoy, even for 15 minutes can cause a release of endorphins that make us feel positive, happy, content, and can help boost our metabolism and improve our sleep, productivity and memory.
When we see improvements through regular exercise, including weight loss, or increased muscle tone and strength, it can also boost our confidence and make us feel good about ourselves, and our bodies.
However, there can be a darker side to the link between exercise and mental health, and a fine line between feeling great, and becoming obsessive. As humans, we naturally put pressure on ourselves, and in the age of Instagram, if we aren’t doing or looking what we consider our best, it can be crushing for our self belief. There is nothing wrong with motivation and determination, in fact I advocate that, but working out for fun, can very quickly turn into self body shaming, body dysmorphia, or steroid abuse if we lose sight and control of what we are looking to achieve.
However, these are the extremes, and setting goals and targets are important in managing our mental health, but it’s important to always be realistic, and keep them reachable, and I will also recommend exercise as a natural boost of positive and vibrant energy, especially during lockdown.
In your experience, is there a correlation between self-confidence and physical activity?
Absolutely! Even though I mentioned body dysmorphia and body shaming, which can be negative consequences of society’s standard of working out, as I said, these are extremes (though always worth mentioning), and exercise has the power to make you feel great both mentally and physically.
Working out improves our body image, and gives us focus, and something to work towards, and gets us excited when we see results. But beyond this, exercise has an overflowing impact on our lifestyle. When we work out, we instantly want to feel better on the inside as well as the outside, and also maintain the results, so we instinctively make better choices when it comes to food and hydration. It also creates better sleeping patterns, and makes us less likely to have nightmares – something that is common during lockdown, as well as makes our bodies operate more smoothly. It also helps build natural immunity, and can help manage chronic illnesses and body related issues. And in some cases, we can also start to think more about our appearance, with some people claiming regular exercise leads to better skin care routines, or change of style as they start to lose weight or get fitter. Put these all together, and they will have a positive effect on your mental health and how you approach things.
And it comes full circle – when you have an increased positive outlook, you feel better about yourself, and have better self esteem.
For women in particular, how do societal pressures, such as around exercising, affect individual mental health?
We live in an age of Instagram where women in particular can feel under pressure to look perfect, and have the ‘perfect body’, Filters and good lighting are our worst enemies, which simply don’t reflect real life. And though body positivity is becoming more mainstream, women are still forbidden to admit that they have cellulite, stretch marks, scars or flab. And the irony is that, if we spoke about it, we would realise it was perfectly normal.
The sad thing about societal pressure, is that it causes women to compare themselves to others, which can cause mental health issues, and feelings of worthlessness. It can also cause resentment, and jealousy, which lead to us discounting our own selves, and the great things that are unique to us, meaning we rarely truly embrace them, as we are constantly longing for things that society tells us we need or want.
We also live in an instant society, and societal pressures around exercise have taught us that we want results, and we want them now. We are constantly advertised the next fad diet, the next big exercise class, supplements, proteins, model promoted workout wear and quick fixes – but aren’t told that exercise can be enjoyable, and fun, but rather hard work and only for the most resilient, meaning most women give up before they start as the bar is already unreachable. And this leads back feelings of worthlessness, and failure.
It all comes down to breaking stigma and starting healthy conversations about health and fitness. Everyone of us is different, it’s not one size fits all. It’s about changing perspective and celebrating the do’s, rather than punishing ourselves for the don’ts. Imagine the impact on our mental health if we celebrated 10 minutes of exercise, instead of feeling bad because we didn’t do 20!
How do you think having a global health crisis / lockdowns have put increased pressure on us in terms of fitness? How might this affect mental health?
I think, as lockdown has continued, the pressure we put on ourselves has actually improved. When lockdown first started in March 2020, hoards of people, especially women started setting fitness goals to get a six pack, or to run a marathon, which sounds like great goals, but are unachievable if they didn’t already have good workout routines, or a particular level of fitness. And when we don’t achieve our goals, we give up quickly, which affects our mental health and sense of achievement. It’s the too much, too soon approach.
However, as lockdown continued, I could see people setting more realistic goals, including 30 minutes a day, or running 1-3k per day, making things more manageable and realistic. This way, individuals are sticking to their goals and creating good workout routines, and actually seeing results.
This third lockdown has definitely changed the way people think about fitness, and goal setting. This time round, it’s more about survival, and people are working out as a way to manage their mental health, or actually accepting that exercise isn’t on their agenda, and getting through the day is more important, which can be healthy, and releases the pressure. People are going through their own experiences, and seem to be less worried about what other people are doing, and focusing on their own situations.
Social media still has a role to play, and is still damaging to mental health but it’s also being used as a conversation and connection tool, with people sharing their shared experiences, and forming a bond over not pressuring themselves. People are exhausted from this lockdown, with more losses of jobs and loved ones, disturbed sleep patterns and huge uncertainties, so it’s ok if exercise isn’t on this lockdown agenda.
There are plenty of long-term mental benefits for exercise – The mental benefits do not stop once you’re done with your run. Regular cardiovascular activity can spark growth of new blood vessels to nourish the brain which also helps to produce new brain cells in certain locations. What’s more the “hippocampus” (the part of your brain associated with memory and learning) has been found to increase in volume in the brains of regular exercisers.
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