The mental health benefits of exercise have largely been overlooked by society in favor of the pursuit of physical excellence. But people don’t just come to the gym to look good, they come to feel good too. Mental health problems will affect 25% of people this year and that’s a statistic we simply should not ignore.
Unlike obesity, depression can be very hard to identify. If you’re looking to improve your overall health you are likely very open about struggling with weight management but, due to the societal stigma that surrounds mental health issues, you are unlikely to come out and say that they you have a mental health goal. It’s also very difficult to differentiate between being temporarily down, or naturally reserved, and the more intractable sadness of clinical depression.
Here are a few of the ways that personal trainers can help those suffering from mental health issues:
Keep depression at bay.
Exercise has been proven to be at least as effective as medication in treating mild depression for most people who take on a structured exercise plan. Those who exercise frequently are also less likely to become depressed than those who are inactive.
There are various theories that explain the link between depression and exercise, the most well-known of which being the endorphin theory. Aside from more complex mechanisms, however, the simple facts that exercising is distracting (in a positive way), gets you out of the house and makes you feel better about your body also go some way to explaining why exercise is effective at beating depression.
Exercise is helpful for the majority of people who experience mild depression but it is not a silver bullet when it comes to moderate or severe depression. In more extreme cases, your client should seek medical help in conjunction with maintaining a healthy exercise routine.
“Exercise is helpful for the majority of people who experience mild depression”
Improve sex life.
Sexual disorders and disinterest can be damaging for those who experience them and their relationships. Sexual health is strongly related to physical and mental health with those who are inactive or depressed being much more likely to experience some form of sexual dysfunction than active people.
Vigorous exercise improves blood flow throughout the body and can reduce the likelihood of impotence in men. Exercise can also improve sexual response in women. Perhaps more than the physical benefits though, exercise has also been proven to enhance self-esteem, a key element to a healthy sex life.
Catch more ZZZs.
Those suffering from one or more mental health complications are likely to experience sleep deprivation and this can also be a trigger for mental health problems. Fortunately, those who exercise are more likely to sleep for longer and wake up less frequently in the night than those that are sedentary. A caveat here, is that some studies suggest that it can take up to sixteen weeks for an exercise routine to affect your sleep pattern, so it’s certainly something that you need to work toward and not give up on too easily.
Reduce the likelihood of anxiety attacks. Aerobic exercise, especially when it is high-intensity, has been proven to reduce both anxiety sensitivity and more generalised anxiety. There are several possible explanations as to why this might be the case but one of the more convincing is that the effects of exercise – an elevated heart rate and sweating – allow the body to become accustomed to the symptoms of an anxiety attack in a safe environment. Furthermore, exercise can boost mood, another antidote to anxiety.
“In layman’s terms … exercise provides more relaxation per minute than you’ll get from a soak in the tub”
Say goodbye to stress.
Researchers are narrowing in on the link between exercise and stress and have calculated that one twenty minute exercise session can generate ninety to one hundred and twenty minutes of relaxation response from your body. In layman’s terms, that’s more relaxation per minute than you’ll get from a soak in the tub. This is one of the reasons that people who are able to exercise during the workday, such as personal trainers, report much lower stress levels than those who work in an office environment.
Feel better, in body and mind.
We’ve all heard of the ‘runner’s high,’ and there’s a good chance that the majority of personal trainers have experienced it first-hand. The good news is that it’s not just runners who get to feel euphoric – it can be everyone who exercises.
It’s very difficult to pinpoint exactly which chemical is responsible. Some say endorphins, others point to a variety of neurotransmitters including norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin, all of which can be traced to a ‘feel-good factor’ and all of which are elevated during exercise. Whatever the exact reason, the results are clear: people who exercise regularly report higher rates of well-being and lower incidences of depression and anxiety.
One of the more interesting recent studies evaluating the effectiveness of exercise at beating depression compared exercise-as-a-treatment versus a standard medication plan. While medication did work more quickly to alleviate the symptoms of depression, at the sixteen week mark it was found that the two methods were just as effective as one another.
More interestingly however was the fact that at the ten month follow up, those who had continued to exercise were much less likely to have fallen back into depression than those who had continued to take medication.
As personal trainers move away from a single-minded focus on outward appearance and adopt a more holistic approach that addresses the overall health and wellbeing of their clients, we can expect to learn more about the mental health benefits that exercise can provide. In a country where just over half admit that anxiety has held them back at some point in their lives, exercise, as a natural health booster can have a massive role to play.