Motivate Yourself to Exercise:
Understand the links between exercise and mental health –
And learn how to reduce your depression, anxiety and anger problems
By Renata Taylor-Byrne and Jim Byrne
Many people lead sedentary lifestyles – sitting around passively consuming TV shows, and other forms of entertainment; and/or working at a desk or table, rarely standing up or moving around.
It is now well established, scientifically, that this kind of inactive lifestyle leads to both physical and mental health problems.
Here are a couple of extracts from this brief book:
Physical exercise and common emotional problems
By Renata Taylor-Byrne, and Jim Byrne
“Exercise strengthens the entire human machine — the heart, the brain, the blood vessels, the bones, the muscles. The most important thing you can do for your long-term health is lead an active life.”
Dr Timothy Church (2013).
Exercise is good for your body-brain-mind, boosting health and strength and emotional buoyancy. According to Dr Mark Atkinson (2007): “Thirty minutes of moderate-intensity exercise, five times a week, is associated with numerous health benefits. These range from improving mood and self-esteem to reducing the risk of cancer and heart disease”.
In the western tradition of physical exercise, three forms of exercise are recommended:
- Aerobic training, which includes brisk walking, jogging, cycling, swimming, etc. (We [Renata and Jim] enjoy brisk walking, and dancing vigorously to pop music). Thirty minutes of brisk walking per day is sufficient to lift depression and reduce anxiety. And : “Swimming for just half an hour three times a week can lower stress levels, raise mood, lower incidences of depression and anxiety and improve sleep patterns”. (Source: Just Swim). Furthermore, running for just thirty minutes per time, three times per week can also lift mood and reduce depression by 16% (according to a recent study by the University of London).
- Weight training, which includes press-ups, sit-backs, climbing stairs, cycling, dumbbells, barbells, kettlebells, etc. (We [the authors] use press-ups and sit-backs; the ‘Plank’ position from Pilates; carrying some weight from the shops on a regular basis; and the ‘PowerSpin’ rotator). Weight training, or resistance training, is also good for improving mental health and emotional wellbeing. According to a meta-analysis of several studies, “…resistance training (or weight training) is a meaningful intervention for people suffering from anxiety” (O’Connor and colleagues, 2010). And: “Four studies have investigated the effect of resistance training with clinically diagnosed depressed adults. The results are unanimous; large reductions in depression from resistance training participation”. (O’Connor and colleagues, 2010).
- Flexibility and stretching exercises, which includes yoga and Chi Kung (Qigong, from Tai Chi), both of which are introduced and described, and extensively explored, below.
There is lots of evidence that physical exercise reduces all forms of stress. This includes:
(1) Transitory stress, which crops up when we run into a threatening or dangerous situation, or we experience a momentary loss. And:
(2) Continuous stress, arising out of nagging overloads of work and difficult life challenges.
The main forms in which stress manifests are: anger and anxiety.
Depression is not normally conceptualized as being a feature of the stress model, but rather to grief. Stress is a response to a pressure bearing down on an individual, when this pressure is greater than their coping resources.
When the pressure is too great for their coping resources, the individual may respond with either explosive or implosive anger – as in either rage outbursts or silent sulking – or with acute or chronic anxiety – as in generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, or panic.
Depression is related to the grief response, and is normally about loss or failure, whether real or symbolic. A person may become depressed after losing a job, a loved one, or losing face, social status, etc.
However, physical exercise helps to reduce all of these emotional states:
– and depression.
This part of the book will explain why exercise is so effective with these conditions and will describe evidence from researchers who have conducted experiments to prove the power of exercise to reduce anxiety, anger, stress and depression.
Then the views of the NHS and the Mayo Clinic will be described, and some Indian and Chinese forms of exercise will be explained and evaluated.
Finally, a recommended regular exercise structure will be described. …
… End of first extract.
Exercise and the brain-mind
Here’s a short extract from a paper which we (Renata and Jim) wrote in 2011, which was essentially a book review of Ratey and Hagerman’s (2009) book – Spark – on the subject of how exercise improves the brain.
This is how we commented towards the end of our paper:
“If you value your brain, and want to keep it in good shape, then exercise is going to appeal more and more to you. Why? Because: ‘The better your fitness level, the better your brain works’, say Ratey and Hagerman (2010, page 247). They mention that research from epidemiologists to kinesiologists confirms this connection (between fitness and brain functioning) repeatedly. They also mention that: ‘Population studies including tens of thousands of people of every age show that fitness levels relate directly to positive mood and lower levels of anxiety and stress’.
“Jeannine Stamatakis writes: ‘To see how much exercise is required to relieve stress, researchers at the National Institutes of Mental Health observed how prior exercise changed the interaction between aggressive and reserved mice’. If the reserved mice had a chance to do some exercise before encountering the aggressive mice, then they were a lot less stressed by that conflict experience. ‘Although this study was done in mice, the results likely have implications for humans as well. Exercising regularly, even taking a walk for 20 minutes several times a week, may help you cope with stress. So dig out those running shoes from the back of your closet and get moving’. (Scientific American Mind, Vol. 23. No.3, July/August 2012; page 72).
Professor Sapolsky on exercise for stress
Finally, in this section, the views of Robert Sapolsky on the benefits of exercise will be summarised. He has been researching and writing about the effects of stress on human beings for many years. He is a professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery at Stanford University, and a research associate with the Institute of Primal Research, National Museum of Kenya. He is the author of a book titled, ‘Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers’, (2010), which is a guide to stress and stress-related diseases, and how we cope with them.
When Sapolsky describes the techniques he uses to control his own stress, he starts with exercise, and states that he uses this technique most frequently. And in his book he describes the many benefits of physical exercise. In relation to blood pressure and resting heart rate, for example, he states that regular exercise will lower them both, and increase lung capacity at the same time.
Exercise also reduces the risk of a range of cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, and so lessens the chance of stress making them worse.
Exercise makes us feel better, and uplifts our mood, and this is because of the release of beta-endorphins. These are neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that pass along signals from one neuron to the next. Neurotransmitters play a crucial role in the function of the central nervous system, and in mood change; and beta-endorphins are more powerful than morphine. (See Bryant, 2010).
New imaging methods have allowed researchers to study the pattern of behaviour of neurotransmitters in the body, and the flow of endorphins as they interact with human brain cells, confirming that they play a part in the ‘feel-good effect that we get from exercising’. So they are natural pain-killers and mood-lifters – (according to Charles Bryant, 2010).
In addition, Sapolsky (2010) states that you reduce physical tension in your body by doing challenging physical exercises. And there is also evidence that if you are well-exercised, then your reaction to psychological stressors is reduced considerably.
Significantly, because you are keeping to your self-chosen exercise regime, you get a sense of achievement and self-efficacy, which is very rewarding.
However, Sapolsky points out that there are several provisos…
… End of second extract.
Endnotes for first extract:
 Hellmich, N. (2013) The best preventative medicine? Exercise. Online: dailycomet.com. Accessed: 18th June 2016
 Atkinson (2007), page 355.
 Source: Just Swim (2016) ‘How swimming improves mental health’. An online blog: http://www.swimming.org/justswim/swimming-improves-mental-health/
 Source: Women’s Running (2015) ‘THE MENTAL HEALTH BENEFITS OF RUNNING: How running can alleviate symptoms of depression’. Online: http://womensrunninguk.co.uk/health/mental-health-benefits-running/. Accessed: 23rd November 2017
 Source: O’Connor, P.J., Herring, M.P. and Carvalho, A. (2010). ‘Mental health benefits of strength training in adults’. American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, 4(5), Pages 377-396.
Endnotes for the second extract:
 Ratey, J. and Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.
 Sapolsky R. (2010) Why Zebras don’t get Ulcers. Third Ed. New York: St Martin’s Griffin.
 Bryant, C.W. (2010) Does running fight depression? 14th July 2010.
HowStuffWorks.com. Available online: http://adventure.howstuffworks.com/outdoor-activities/ running/health/running-fight-depression.htm. Accessed 16th June 2016.