If exercise came in the form of pills, we’d be queueing up for them
The benefits of exercise for our physical, mental and emotional health are enormous
UL research found that strength training brought about improvements in symptoms of depression, boosting mood, increasing interest in activities and reducing feelings of worthlessness. Photograph: iStock
It’s summer and that means our attitude to exercise can play out in one of two ways. The first is, “Oh, look, it’s summer – what a great opportunity to get out and get fit.”
The other is, “Oh, it’s summer, and I’m feeling really lazy and relaxed and I guess I’ll have another beer now.”
I used to be pretty good at exercising every day but in the past six months or so I’ve been getting kind of lazy about it. To help myself back into fitness I’ve been reminding myself of some of the almost magical benefits of exercise.
What triggered me to do this was a report in Time magazine on research by Brett Gordon, a postgraduate researcher at the University of Limerick. The research found that strength training brought about improvements in symptoms of depression, boosting mood, increasing interest in activities and reducing feelings of worthlessness. He and his colleagues reached this conclusion after analysing 33 clinical trials which involved almost 2,000 people.
I don’t suffer from depression, though my mood tends to go downwards in the summer, for reasons unknown to me. However, his research reminded me that exercise boosts mood and that the effect tends to last for some time after the activity is over.
Resistance training, weight-lifting for instance, often doesn’t get mentioned when we talk about keeping fit. The typical image is of somebody putting on the runners and pounding the pavements.
But given this finding, it might be time to take out those kettle bells that, in my case anyway, have been lying around gathering a fine coat of dust, and give them a little exercise a few times a week.
We also often don’t think of yoga as exercise but as a means of keeping supple and also as a form of meditation or mindfulness.
But research shows that participation in yoga classes a few times a week in addition to doing yoga at home actually lowers depression. So if you’ve got a yoga mat rolled up under the stairs, it may be time to release it.
Running has a whole range of psychological benefits and the British Psychological Society has listed many of them in its Research Digest (10 ways that running changes your mind and brain).
For instance, running can boost the flexibility of the brain. An example of this is being able to switch quickly between one task and another.
Jogging calms the mind as you direct attention towards the act of jogging and away from your mental chatter. Jogging can also boost emotion regulation. Joggers get less upset when things go wrong shortly after a run.
I have always been more of a walker than a runner so I was glad to see that brisk walking, according to the Mayo Clinic, can help to reduce the risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.
Exercise has long been seen as a virtuous thing, as an activity that makes you a better person
To get the benefits, try walking briskly for briskly for half an hour five times a week. The half-hour walk doesn’t have to take place at once – you could take three brisk 10-minute walks per day.
This emphasises that people who “do their steps” and try to walk 10,000 steps a day as measured by their activity trackers are doing themselves a very big favour in terms of physical and mental health.
In light of all this, it’s interesting that exercise is often treated as the poor relation when it comes to psychological therapies. It’s almost as though it isn’t complicated enough for us.
But the benefits are amazing and we’d queue up for them if we could get them in the form of a pill. Alas, we can’t.
And exercise has another benefit: since the 19th century, at least, when there was vogue for what was called “muscular Christianity”, exercise has been seen as a virtuous thing, as an activity that makes you a better person.
So not only do you get to improve your health and your mood by exercising – you get to go around feeling smug about it.
What’s to lose?
– Padraig O’Morain (firstname.lastname@example.org, @PadraigOMorain) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Kindfulness. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email.