Get fit, stay calm - Is it really that simple?

Author: Hayley Alexander

There is very little we have control over in our lives, a brutal truth many of us struggle with.


Certainly, if there’s anything 2020 has taught us, it’s that we can’t even make plans from one day to the next. At best, every hour is a gamble.


But as much as we might need to learn to go with the flow and make peace with the fact that all things are in a constant state of flux, it’s as important to focus on what we can control (to some extent at least) and leverage this to the best of our abilities.  


The question is, what can you do that will have the most significant impact on your life, right now?


Keep fit and stay calm


It’s well known that exercise has a positive effect on mental health. 


As highlighted in an article for Psychology Today, written by Dr Sarah Gingell, a psychologist and counsellor based in Edinburgh with a background in neuroscience, studies have made it clear that “exercise reduces the likelihood of depression and also maintains mental health as we age.”


Chemically, this change in mood is due to the effects of the body producing endorphins (feel good neurotransmitters) during exercise; and releasing other proteins and hormones that support brain development and memory, Gingell explains. 


However, she believes that “the simple act of focusing on exercise can give us a break from current concerns and damaging self-talk”, and that “further, depending on the activity, people may benefit from calming exercises” - such as yoga, tai-chi and medication - “all of which are known to improve mood and general health.” 


Having said that, it may work both ways.


Keep calm and stay fit?


According to Harvard Health, a study published by JAMA Psychiatry reported that “running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression.” 


While this study isn’t the first to show the benefits of exercise on mental health, what made it interesting is that one of the researcher’s aims was to determine “whether being physically active can improve emotional well-being, or if we simply move less when we feel sad or depressed.” 


The study’s author, Karmel Choi, questioned whether physical activity protected against depression or if depression simply caused a reduction in physical activity.


Using genetic data and tracking devices, what they found was that “exercise was able to independently reduce the risk for depression.” 


Less clear was the evidence to support that emotional wellbeing leads to being more active. However, based on feedback from participants, they were more inclined to participate in exercise when they were feeling positive. In addition, participants who kept active by doing everyday chores (like laundry, walking to the shops etc.), had better mental health scores too. 


Top exercises for cultivating calm


As was suggested by Dr Gingell, calming exercises, especially those that focus on controlled breathing and periods of meditation, can have many positive effects.


A 2018 study, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, found that amongst other physical benefits, yoga can help one to: -  


  • better manage stress, 

  • ward off anxiety and depression, as well as

  • increase energy levels and a sense of general wellbeing. 


However, if gentle exercise doesn’t do it for you, there is also evidence that aerobic activities (such as brisk walking, running, cycling) can have similar therapeutic effects, says Harvard Health.


It seems both staying calm and getting fit are inextricably linked health-wise. Why not focus on both simultaneously, and ‘kill two birds with one stone’? 




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