By Jenna Chia

    The benefits of physical activity for preventing mental illness and improving mental health have been widely researched. Studies consistently show that even small amounts of exercise are protective against both developing depression and alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety. Australia’s Black Dog Institute encourages physical activity for its known effects on improving mood, coping and resilience, distracting from negative thoughts, and promoting better memory and sleep. Ask any mental health professional and they will tell you it is an essential part of any self-care toolkit.

    Policy makers and health experts in Australia reflected the importance of physical activity during even during the strictest of the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, allowing people time to leave their home to engage in exercise in their local area. Many of us came to see this hour or two of as a lifeline, a brief respite from the tedium of life within four walls. A recent study on the impact of the pandemic and restrictions across the USA, UK, France, and Australia found that there were sharp declines in both physical activity and mental health during lockdowns. Similarly other research on the pandemic has found that people who continued to engage in physical activity were protected from the negative mental health effects of lockdowns.

    In my work as a mental health clinician, I have seen firsthand the incredible benefits that physical activity can have on improving mental health outcomes and, conversely, how a sedentary lifestyle can impact on motivation, energy, and mood. People who have been unwell for many years have seen profound changes in their mood and ability to function after starting a daily exercise routine. From a physiological perspective, exercise stimulates the release of endorphins that have both short- and long-term effects on low mood and negative feelings. However, the benefits of physical activity extend far beyond the known effects of mood enhancing hormones.

    Mental illness is enormously debilitating and can erode a person’s self-esteem and confidence. Many people who experience poor mental health report feeling a loss of control over their mind, body, and ability to achieve life goals. While modern day psychiatric treatments have vastly improved over the years and saved the lives of many people, they can also add to these feelings of disempowerment. Critiques of mental health care and treatments highlight how they can shift the locus of control from the individual to mental health professionals and pharmaceutical medications. Helplessness is rarely associated with recovery from mental illness.

    Consumer (or patient) led movements emphasise the importance of choice, empowerment, and respect in recovery from mental illness. It is often a turning point in the recovery journey when people can give voice to their experience and opinions on treatment. Similarly, choosing to engage in an activity that actively alleviates difficult feelings and boosts your mood, provides a sense of control and self determination that is profoundly beneficial. Going for a 30-minute walk or doing a workout at the gym, and feeling immediate benefits, can help shift the belief in one’s capacity to change their current situation. 

    Engaging in sport and team-based physical activity has the added benefit of promoting social connection and comradeship, reducing feelings of isolation that often accompany mental health issues. Taking up a new sport or activity stimulates your brain to develop new neural pathways and positive mood circuits as it adapts to new skills. Trying something new, overcoming the challenges, and acquiring new abilities, can offer a profound sense of mastery and achievement. My own experience of engaging in a new activity last year demonstrated this.

    Towards the end of the last COVID-19 lockdown in 2021 I decided to start a series of horse-riding lessons. I had always wanted to learn to ride and the feeling of stagnation after 18 months of lockdowns motivated me to get out of my comfort zone and try something new. The experience was life changing. Initially, I was incredibly nervous and walked away from those early lessons with aching muscles and frustration at my lack of co-ordination. However, the one-hour lessons soon became the highlight of my week, offering a complete mental escape as my focus was totally absorbed in the instructions of my teacher, practicing new techniques, and the movement of the horse. Over time, I would leave the lessons feeling exhilarated and satisfied. While the lessons haven’t continued, the experience has given me more confidence and a sense of adventure that I had lost during the pandemic. Engaging in physical activity not only offers a sense of control in times of crisis or disorder, but it can also sustain and connect you to others, but most importantly to yourself.


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