A year ago, society was back in resolution mode and we eagerly embraced the coming new year with a strong sense of optimism as we set our goals for physical fitness. From London to Louisiana, health clubs and fitness centers were re-opening, personal fitness trainers were working with clients again, and charity runners could participate in their favourite fundraising marathons.
While we’ve made measurable progress in putting the pandemic behind us, 2021 brought its own form of uncertainty and stress. Variants of the COVID virus mutated into new threats and the mainstream media’s relentless proliferation of coronavirus “updates” left us anxious and emotionally exhausted. Recent studies have determined that the continuous barrage of “pandemic related” updates were directly linked to the mental health challenges that confront society today. Though the rules have loosened up a bit since the early days of the pandemic, current social distancing protocols and isolation continue to elevate our levels of depression and anxiety.
And once again, we seem to be starting another new year that’s rife with ambiguity. Will we continue working remotely? Will our children be attending school from home again via “distance learning?” Society is left feeling as though they can’t even plan out a simple work week. Is it really any surprise that nine out of ten Americans are expected to commit to some kind of fitness resolution in 2021 to deal with stress and anxiety?
But research shows that such a commitment can be a very good thing. Experts have long analyzed the existing correlations between fitness and mental health, and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the benefits of physical fitness go well beyond weight loss and physical strength. By continuing to keep those appointments with personal fitness trainers or even just by incorporating some form of physical activity into our daily lives, we can be enormously effective in combating our own depression and anxiety.
Here are some of the most common mental health challenges that are confronting society today and what we can do to achieve optimal levels of mental health during what is shaping up to be another year of uncertainty…
Physical Fitness & Stress
Our stress levels can be significantly amplified during the holiday season because we always try and make them perfect. Once stress levels go high enough, it can physically manifest itself in the form of the tension that we feel in our face, neck, and shoulders. Even tightness in the chest and muscle cramps are symptoms of severe stress.
Solution: Making time for physical fitness activities and doing so routinely, whether it be walking up a set of stairs or exercising under the close watch of a personal trainer, is remarkably effective at disrupting the cycle of stress before it can manifest itself in the form of those physical aches and pains that only serve to further discourage us from working out. That’s not all. Exercising as a means of relieving stress also serves to release pleasurable endorphins (they call it “runner’s high” for a reason).
Physical Fitness & Anxiety
There is a distinction to be made between anxiety and stress. The latter is caused by an outside trigger, usually short in duration (like an upcoming job interview). In contrast, anxiety is persistent and constant worrying that doesn't go away even when we take away the factor or culprit that we think is causing the anxiety. In fact, it’s not uncommon at all for people to feel anxious and have no idea why.
Solution: Physical fitness routines and regular exercise are widely recognized as anti-anxiety treatments. Aerobic activity is best for relieving anxiety, especially fitness routines that require moving all your limbs. Swimming, martial arts, even dancing relieves tension and accelerates mental energy. The aerobic activity involved releases those endorphins that serve to temper our anxiety levels.
Physical Fitness & Depression
Every year 16 million Americans are forced to fight a battle with depression, but it’s a condition that relentlessly torments people across the globe. Feeling blue, unexplainable sadness, lost interest in once inspiring activities - these are the icky feelings we all feel periodically. But, for those fighting depression, it is the makeup of their daily lives. Antidepressant medications are a common treatment but there are Harvard medical studies that can demonstrate how physical fitness activities can successfully treat mild to moderate depression just as effectively as prescribed antidepressant medication—and without pharmaceutical side effects.
Solution: Working out initiates a sequence of biological events that produces a wide array of health benefits. In fact, physical fitness activities that are done at a higher intensity (like running stairs) will release a stream of the body's best “feel-good” chemicals – these are those endorphins again, and they contribute to that euphoric “high” we feel afterward. In technical terms, physical fitness activities contribute to nerve cell growth, including within a gland called the hippocampus (which is in your brain). This part of our brain regulates our mood, and it is often smaller in those who are fighting depression.
When we exercise, we improve nerve cell connections, including within the hippocampus and that is what helps to relieve depression.
Mental Health issues affect us all. Many celebrities and professional athletes have begun to speak out about their battles with depression and anxiety to help eliminate the perceived stigma of suffering from these issues. Even former Manchester United goalkeeper, Roy Carroll, who had a revelation while living alone in an apartment in Canary Wharf, admits to battling the effects of depression, and is now committed to helping others who are fighting the same battle.
Don’t be afraid to seek support. Your body and mind are closely linked. When the body feels better, so too does the mind.