The mental health benefits of exercise

Regular readers will know that I really don’t like how I look, primarily as I need to shed a considerable amount of excess body fat. I rarely weigh myself as I believe that people easily fall into the trap of becoming slaves to their scales (and therefore beat themselves up if they don’t lose some weight every day / week / however frequently they weigh themselves) though if I were guessing at a necessary weight loss, I’d say I need to shift 3-4 stone to be in a position I’ll be truly happy with.

I used to exercise frequently in my late-teens / early-twenties. I was a member of a local gym and went 3-4 times per week, whilst I also played football on a weekly basis. I was certainly slimmer back then but that fell by the wayside as other elements of my life took priority. I could suggest that buying our first house (with my now wife) slowly resulted in fitness being pushed down the list of the priorities, though that wouldn’t be wholly true and will likely land me in trouble, so I’ll say that it was one of a number of factors, along with simply enjoying life, eating out and drinking more, a busier job, playing more guitar etc, which led to regular exercise slowly slipping out of my life.

Fast-forward twenty years or so and things are considerably worse. The obligatory over-forty health checks haven’t highlighted anything of real concern, other than a need to lose weight and bring my BMI down, though I know I am unhealthy. Until very recently, a short walk to the shop at the top of the street frequently resulted in a tightness in my chest. I could only endure moderate exercise for short spells before feeling tired and out-of-breath. My aerobic capacity is poor and only the mildest forms of exercise would be enough to make me break out in a sweat. It is that tightness in my chest which concerns me the most though. I’m 46 now and I’ve started to think of my mortality a lot more of late. That may sound morbid but it’s important to me. 46 is no age (as my mum would say) but I’ve now crept into the middle-age bracket (the Oxford English Dictionary defines it as 45-60) and I desperately want to do everything I can to live a healthy and enjoyable life well into my golden years. 

So, recently, I’ve made a conscious effort to get fitter and healthier, for a number of reasons. The main reason is that which I describe above – that I simply have to do this, otherwise I firmly believe I’m putting myself at greater risk of developing significant health issues as I career headlong toward my fifties. Additionally, I’ve seen family members and friends have health issues recently and that has scared me. I won’t go into detail here but seeing people adopt lifestyle changes as a result of health issues, changes which really seem to be working well for them, has really inspired me. A blog post Joe Wicks shared regarding the mental health benefits of exercise also really resonated with me and can be found here should you wish to read it (it’s a quick and easy read and worth taking a look at).

As a result of this, for the past couple of months or so, I’ve started to make changes which are already reaping rewards. The key to success is absolutely finding what works for you and I’ve started to do just that. Despite doing many things in life which suggest otherwise (such as pretty much baring my soul via this blog, playing live music in front of substantial numbers of people etc), I’m naturally quite a private person and am very happy in my own company. For that reason, I really do not like gyms and will not become a member of one again. Running has been successful for me in the past but I’m now at an age where I’ve seen friends suffer with various muscular and joint issues through running too much and I don’t want the same to happen to me, particularly as I suffer from sporadic lower-back problems. Therefore, home workouts are best for me. I already have some exercise equipment (a rowing machine, kettlebells, stomach crunchers, dumbbells, and other bits and pieces) and I’ve made good use of those over recent weeks. I’ve also dusted off the Nintendo Wii and started using one of the fitness games on a daily basis. Some might scoff at that but it is working really well for me – I’m able to set the duration of the workout, the intensity, describe what equipment I have which I can use and, over the course of a week, complete a full body workout (including aerobic and yoga elements) in short, 15-minute sessions. It is far more challenging than you might expect a Wii-based workout would be. I’m also walking considerably more than I was doing a couple of months ago and this is another method which is working really well for me. It is a less strenuous form of exercise but still a calorie-burner and the mental benefits are huge – just getting out for an hour or two each day works wonders for the mind.

I’m also back to trying to establish and maintain a healthy diet. I’ve written in previous posts about the 16:8 fasting approach and I’m adopting that between 5-6 days per week. I’ve severely reduced the amount of junk-food I eat (certainly chocolate, biscuits, crisps and cakes) and I eat nothing but fruit prior to lunch. I read a book recently which suggested that this is a fantastic way of maintaining energy levels throughout the day, primarily as fruit requires less energy to be digested than any other food, therefore fruit sits in the stomach for a much shorter period of time than all other foods (passing through the stomach in 20-30 minutes) and subsequently breaking down and releasing nutrients into the body at a much quicker rate whilst leaving the body to use the energy normally expended on digestion to instead cleanse the body of toxic waste and enable weight loss. This apparently only works on an empty stomach though – the benefits cannot be realised if fruit is eaten with or immediately following other foodstuffs. I didn’t conduct any further research – I simply took this for granted and gave it a try. I’ve been doing this for 3 weeks now (6 days per week – Sunday is my poached eggs on toast treat day!) and I’m really seeing the benefits. I don’t feel anywhere near as bloated and I seem to have much more energy throughout the day. I’ve always eaten a good amount of fruit but used to have issues with feeling bloated if I ate too much. However, the eating fruit on an empty stomach advice is clearly inspired as the bloated feeling is no longer the case for me.

Finally, I’ve pretty much ditched alcohol for the past 7 weeks or so (except for a few bottles last Saturday). More of this in a future post but this is primarily due to being sick and tired of feeling lethargic and bloated following alcohol consumption, plus I’m conscious of the calorie count in most alcoholic drinks and I’ve also read numerous stories of late from people who have completely given up drinking and claim they hadn’t realised just how much it contributed to an anxious state-of-mind and poor mental health. I’ve taken to drinking zero-alcohol substitutes instead – something I’d have scoffed at a few months ago but they’re working really well for me. Seems I don’t really need that merry / drunk feeling after all but there is something psychological about needing ‘a beer’ in my hand at certain times, i.e. when in the company of others during an evening with friends, when barbecuing etc. I haven’t given up alcohol completely, though I really do think my consumption of it will be greatly reduced for some time to come. Again, though – more of that in a dedicated future post.

So, how best to summarise this post? I suppose for me, the benefits of exercise and trying to live a healthier life, especially where mental health is concerned, are clear. I’ve been working on this for the past month or two and I’m seeing the benefits already. I’m feeling much better physically, and I can feel my body shape slowly changing. I have more energy and, perhaps most importantly, I’m subsequently in a better state of mind than I have been for a long while. I’ve barely scratched the surface though and will certainly try to continue in this vein for much of this year and beyond. I can’t say for certain if it will help my state-of-mind longer-term though I’m certainly hoping so. Another thing to consider is setting goals if you need to – I genuinely have as many clothes in my wardrobe that I can’t quite fit into as I do clothes that do fit comfortably, so that is another big driver for me.

The key, as far as I’m concerned, is finding whatever works best for you, if you do intend trying to use exercise to improve your mental health. I’m certainly not going to be one of those over-zealous health-freaks who shoves their thoughts and ideas down the throats of others. Quite simply, the benefits are obvious and achievable, so find the methods which might work best for you, take tentative steps, remember it will take time, and give it a go. As far as I can see, there is very little to lose and huge amounts to gain.

As always, thanks for reading and take care.

Best wishes.

Mick

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