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Moving More for our Mental Health

  • May 17, 2024
  • 5 min read
Moving More for our Mental Health

Since 2001, the Mental Health Foundation has been leading Mental Health Awareness Week – bringing together the UK to focus on getting good mental health. This year the theme is movement. Over the past few years an increasing number of studies have been published showing that nutrition, exercise and sleep can dramatically influence mood and mental wellbeing. There has been an explosion of knowledge on how the mind and body are intricately connected and how the health of the body plays a key role in optimising mental wellbeing.

The World Health Organization (WHO) reports that over a billion people globally are living with a mental disorder, most typically anxiety issues and depression. Seeking medical/professional help with serious mental health concerns is always recommended and supplementing this with nutrient dense food and an active lifestyle can do wonders. Dr Helena Nundy, a London based psychologist, practices walking therapy with some of her clients. The positive outcomes are outstanding. In a study, mental health charity, Mind, reported that 71% of people surveyed felt decreased depression and less tension after a walk in nature. 90% felt their self-esteem increase. The importance of nature for mental health is increasingly recognised in mainstream healthcare and doctors can even prescribe time in nature to people with mental health problems.

Movement starts a biological cascade of events that result in numerous health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure and blood sugar levels. It reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke, dementia and many cancers. Scientists now say it is the single most important thing you can do for your health.

Different types of exercise benefit the brain in different ways.

Strength training has been shown to increase levels of Insulin-like Growth Factor 1 (IGF-1), which promotes new blood vessel and neurone growth. It also reduces homocysteine levels, a marker of inflammation.

High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT ) stimulates neurones in the hippocampus to release brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), affectionately known as fertiliser for the brain. These cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections, especially in the hippocampus, the area that helps regulate mood and memory and is known to be smaller in depressed people. The improvement in brain function translates to positive mood and behavioural changes, including the reduction or elimination of depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. BDNF also plays a role in glucose regulation and lipid metabolism. All of which can contribute to a reduced risk of dementia!

Yoga is a perfect combination of stretching, breathing and core strengthening that can prove invigorating for the mind and body. When the breath is consciously controlled, brainwaves become synchronised. This synchronicity starts in the olfactory bulb in the nose and bring together other areas of the brain that are responsible for cognition, memory, movement and emotion. Different rates of nasal breathing can make us either more alert or more relaxed and more able to regulate emotions. Deep breathing before an exam can even help the recall of more information as well as calming nerves. When timed to music feel good chemicals, endorphins, serotonin and dopamine are released. Yoga poses not only stretch muscle but also the muscle cells. As they do so, ATP, the currency of energy, is released and mops up any inflammation. This has a huge positive impact on the immune system and mental health. The best part is, you don’t have to be an expert yogi to keep the benefits, even just a feel-good stretch when you wake up in the morning can do the job!

There is a neural pathway connecting the movements of our core to our adrenal glands. This may explain why exercises that work the core can elevate stress. Hip Flexors, muscles that allow us to lift our legs are also connected to the diaphragm. The diaphragm is linked to vagus nerve, which is involved in our “flight/ fight” reaction. The vagus nerve can effect heart rate variability (HRV), which is an indication of how well we respond and deal with stress. Stretching and strengthening these muscles in lunge positions like the Warrior poses in yoga can help ease stress and take us out of a flight/ fight response, especially when the breathing is slowed. Research also suggests that an expansive body posture helps produce feelings of power, strength and enthusiasm.

The social side of going to the gym, attending a class or taking part in group sports, cannot be underestimated! A strong social life is one of the major factors that contributes to long term brain health, longevity, increased life span, reduced cancer risk and stress related disorders. Fitness retreats offer a perfect opportunity to make long term friends, learn new skills and cement healthy lifestyle habits. Even if socialising is not for you, taking part in a class where you are focusing on technique, timing and coordination helps boost neurone formation, proprioception and can be meditative and therapeutic, taking your mind away from your daily stressors or life struggles!

Mental Health Awareness Week Mon, 13th May, to Sun, 19th May, 2024

About Author

Natalie Shanahan

Natalie Shanahan has a BSc in Genetics and a MSc in Bioinformatics. She worked as a lecturer, teaching genetics and biochemistry, before moving to Australia to work for their first Bioinformatics company. Here she managed their marketing as well as working on their numerous educational resources. Natalie left her career in science to follow her passion and now works as a personal trainer and nutrition consultant, helping individuals and employees of large organisations better understand their health and wellbeing.

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