I have often heard it said that as little as 10 minutes of regular exercise can help alleviate depression. But even professionals don’t always make the link between mental and physical health. There are many reasons that physical activity is said to help mental health. It boosts mood, relieves stress and improves sleep.
Although the long-associated stigma attached to mental illness has faded in recent years, the services set up to provide assistance are still stretched and underfunded. With the caveat that exercise alone can’t cure mental health problems, it can be a significant benefit. A recent study published in the JAMA Psychiatry journal in January 2019, supported the theory that physical activity is an effective prevention strategy for depression.
Dr Brendon Stubbs, head of physiotherapy at the South London and Maudsley NHS foundation trust, says that one theory is that exercise has a positive impact on the hippocampus in the brain. This region is smaller in many mental health and cognitive conditions, including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, mild cognitive impairment and dementia.
Just 10 minutes of light exercise has been shown to have a short-term impact on the hippocampus, and a long-term impact after 12 weeks. People with certain mental health conditions, such as depression, have also been found to have elevated levels of inflammatory markers, and therefore, one way that exercise helps protect against and manage mental illness may be reducing inflammation.
But despite the often-quoted statistic that one in four of us will experience mental illness, and despite knowing that exercise can help ease the symptoms, many of us are simply not active enough. NHS figures for 2018 showed that only 66% of men and 58% of women aged 19 and over met the recommended aerobic guidelines of 2.5 hours of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week.
This may reflect the fact that many people still see exercise as a chore. Although our perception of exercise is formed in childhood, 2017 statistics for Public Health England, found that by the final year of primary school, just 17% of children were doing the recommended amount of daily exercise.
In adulthood, exercise is often the first thing to be sacrificed, with the excuse that we don’t have enough time. In our busy daily lives, other interests often compete for our attention but none should be more important than our mental and physical health.
We must make time to look after our health and as these studies show there is no health without mental health.