What are the best exercises for mental health?
When is exercise recommended for mental health?
The benefits of exercise to your physical health are well understood, but recently the effect on mental health has become part of the general conversation. Based on research, everyone would benefit from some level of exercise. But one group with mental health problems stands out for Dr Cassidy: Veterans, Police and First Responders. “Australian veterans, police and first responders are selected for both physical and mental toughness. This is a source of pride in this group and when their stressful work impacts on this, it can be very hard to acknowledge.” Dr Cassidy has noticed that in these occupations it is particularly difficult to talk about stress and their unique traumatic experience “especially to outsiders unacquainted with life in the services”.
Why it is difficult to exercise when suffering from depression, anxiety or PTSD?
In most cases depression occurs simultaneously with PTSD and anxiety, with characteristic lack of motivation or loss of pleasure. As a result, patients are tempted to self-medicate with a range of harmful habits resulting in exercise being neglected instead of reaching out and connecting with people who can help. Even so, Andrew Daubney cautions that whilst exercise can be helpful, that “Exercise will not cure a mental illness. Primarily because, a lack of exercise is not what caused the mental illness in the first place.”
How to find motivation to exercise?
Andrew Daubney has some really good advice to find motivation: “There are three key elements when it comes to finding motivation to exercise:
1. Make it easy. Exercise first thing in the morning – like literally the first thing – before you’ve had the opportunity to talk yourself out of it.
2. Do what you enjoy doing. If you don’t like running… don’t try to run every day. It seems simple enough advice, but many people choose exercises that they think are good, with little regard to their enjoyment of these exercises. So, you might need to try a few different types of exercise to see what you enjoy!
3. Make it social. Let’s face it, some days it’s much easier to stay in bed than go out in the cold. Find someone you can outsource your motivation to someone who’ll hold you accountable, and only take No for an answer when its necessary.”
Dr Cassidy also sees in his patients that unhealthy habits such as alcohol and drug use, poor sleep, and excessive comfort foods all contribute to poor mental health. To counter this he suggests “a modest exercise and healthy eating routine can make the process of extending these good habits into other areas much easier“.
Advice for friends and family of someone with a mental illness to “get them moving”
It is important to remember that depression, anxiety and PTSD are diagnosed medical conditions. As such, it is not by “lack of will” that sufferers from depression, anxiety or PTSD stay home and stop being active. Andrew Daubney shares his “Do’s and Don’t’s”:
- exercise first thing in the morning, or at a fixed hour of the day - set the bar low. If just starting out, the goal may be to simply DO exercise and let the enjoyment come later
- set small and specific goals
- acknowledge and congratulate good behaviours. This will help to reinforce them.
- Reward externally. “If you go for a walk, that means you can have some ice-cream”. The reward should be the recognition you give yourself
- Use catch-phrases such as “you’ll feel better after”, or “snap out of it”.
- Use guilt to try and motivate. Some days, you won’t feel like getting out of bed, let alone exercising. On those days, show compassion by not pushing or getting frustrated, and just listen.
What are the best activities for mental health?
The Australian Guidelines tell us that we need to exercise on most, if not all days of the week. But the rest is up to you. Andrew’s advice is to find exercise that you enjoy, and ideally get a mixture of cardiovascular (eg. walking, jogging, cycling) and resistance (eg. weights, gymnastics, rock-climbing) exercises.
Dr Cassidy and Andrew both agree that mental and physical health are closely related. And while it is too simplistic to say that exercise can fix mental illnesses, certainly good physical health and healthy eating can help you feel good about yourself and reconnect with the community.
In managing veteran, police and first responders with Depression and PTSD, Dr Cassidy often uses TMS therapy as a non-drug depression treatment because “TMS as an outpatient is an ideal therapy for someone suffering from depression and looking to stay active because you don’t need to be in hospital and there are very few side effects” Dr Cassidy concludes.