The Impact of Exercise: Mental Health, Physical Health, and Weight Loss

Updated: Oct 19, 2019

This week I've had the great fortune of sitting through a 3 day first aid course instead of my usual work week. As disgusting as it is hearing about broken bones, blood loss, and people being burned alive, the bit that truly made me freak was hearing the horror stories of young people having heart attacks. Due to being overweight I'm already at risk and despite having previous for suicidal thoughts, I've come to quite like this being alive business, so it's probably about time I get my heart and body back into shapeOh man, I think I need to start exercising again.

I'll start with the obvious but we've all probably heard it before, exercising has all of the following benefits on your physical health; reduced risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, stroke, arthritis, and cancer, encourages weight loss, builds bone and muscle density, aids skin health, and can reduce chronic pain.

It's basically magic at the tip of your fingers and toes; the miracle cure that we're looking for might just be in those dusty gym shoes that you forgot you bought 3 years ago. But it's not always that simple, I know. Long-standing injuries make things tough, as does finding the time, so I'm aiming to put something together which takes up to 30 minutes per day, is adaptable for those who have injuries, is suitable for weight loss, is affordable, and starts at a low point so anyone can join straight in.

Before I give all that, though, let's discuss the mental health benefits of exercising. Basically, 2 years ago, exercise saved my life. I wrote more about this in another blog which I'll release shortly after this one so you can read more about it, but in short, having considered ending my own life in April 2016, my wife dragged my arse to running a half marathon by October. The impact that running had on my ability to manage my depression, anxiety, Tourette's disorder, and thought patterns was palpable and has regularly changed my life for the better whenever I'm chased by that damned black dog.

Essentially, exercise causes a multitude of changes in the brain which alter our ability to feel happy. One thing that everyone seems to know is that increased exercise causes increased production of endorphins, chemicals which produce more positive moods and reduce feelings of physical pain, but it goes deeper than that. Physical activity increases the brain's sensitivity to serotonin and norepinephrine, both of which can aid in reducing feelings of depression and anxiety.

On top of this, exercise improves sleep patterns and helps people feel more alert and awake. My personal experience of depression (alongside the self-hatred and fear of everything) was the constant drained out exhaustion that sat like a dark cloud over my daily life. My sleep was consistently terrible but once I started exercising again, I slept better, I woke up in the night less, and I actually felt like getting up in the morning. And when I did get up, I felt more able to concentrate on things. Everything felt less of a chore, and I became interested in life instead of feeling trampled on by lethargy.

A little known symptom of depression is memory loss. When you can't sleep and everything feels like a dream world where you don't really exist, remembering what's real and what isn't is remarkably hard, particularly if you're suffering any level of psychosis. Good news again, exercise enhances the plasticity of the hippocampus, which in turn encourages better memory.

There's more which I won't bore you with but to summarise, if you want a healthier brain, a reduced likelihood of (or a better ability to better manage the symptoms of) depression, anxiety, Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and generally speaking, a happier life; exercise might be a great step to get you going.

All of this, of course, comes with a caveat. The last thing I want this article to do is to trivialise how severe mental health difficulties can be and I fully recognise that not everyone can just go to the gym and suddenly be cured. The magic combination is, of course, exercise, support from those close to you, and professional help; but in the absence of the other options, physical activity is a great place to start.  All I'm here to do is offer up an option alongside some evidence that physical activity can make a difference, in the hope that I can support those who are interested, to make that first step towards a mentally healthier life.

It's also worth noting that I'm not trying to tell you what to do from a high and mighty pedestal or soapbox, because I am back at the starting point making that same change today. I haven't exercised in months and from this coming Monday (21st Oct) I'll be jumping back in, and aim to go from wheezing at the top of my staircase to running 10km without stopping by Friday 22nd Nov.

If anyone would like to join, my training plan is below. It starts at running 1 kilometre, so most should be able to dive in. If running isn't your thing or you have slight injuries, swap running for cycling. If you're more injured than that, swimming is great as it is low pressure on your joints. If you don't want to be seen exercising, there's tons you can do at home and I've offered a couple of apps (below) I've used in the past which will help. If all of these things still seem impossible, give me a shout (@blogblackdog on Twitter), maybe we can jointly think of a way.

If you've come here just to know the best types of exercise for weight loss, heart health, or for mental health, it is anything which follows high intensity intervals, and football is a great example. Going fast then slow repeatedly is better for you than going at a consistently medium pace. Lifting weights is very much included in this as it usually does involve using a lot of intensity for short bursts then resting. Maybe I'll have time to go into why in another article.

Anyway, here is my 10k plan. If you're planning on following it, try to fit some resistance work in somewhere, whether this is with weights or using your own body weight.

Stats after 2 weeks

Starting weight : 19st 9lbs

Current weight: 18st 4lbs

Starting waist: 46.5 inches

Current waist: 43.5 inches

Starting neck: 17.8 inches

Current neck: 16.5 inches

Starting chest: 47.6 inches

Current chest: 43 inches

Starting resting heart rate: 72 BPM

Current resting heart rate: 66 BPM

Matt Burgess is writing for The Black Dog Blog, a journal which focuses upon the impact of physical health upon mental health and wellbeing. Follow us or make contact on Twitter: @BlogBlackDog

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