In 2016, I wrote an article about how employers need to start taking the health of their employees seriously. The thrust of the article was that a modest amount of activity can have a significant positive impact on the health and productivity of the workforce. Employers can make a few small but substantive changes and have a major impact.
I could have extended that article to talk about the benefits of physical activity on mental health, though for reasons of brevity I did not. However, the evidence is no less compelling: people who move more are less prone to suffer from mental health problems.
My good friend and Olympic silver medallist Leon Taylor recently gave a TED Talk on precisely this subject. Leon explains how he is personally motivated to talk about this subject due to his own journey from so-called “problem child” to an Olympic medallist. Mental health was understood much less well when we were children and therapeutic choices not as wide and holistic. So, instead of taking the doctor’s recommendation of sedative-based treatment, Leon’s parents “prescribed” (his words) physical exercise, and thank goodness they did.
Personally, this resonates enormously. I *need* to exercise to maintain my balance. I know that feeling all-too-well of being on edge if I’ve not exercised in a day or two. I feel mentally dulled. I get unusually short. I don’t sleep as well and get tired more quickly.
Regular physical activity has subsequently been repeatedly proven to improve mental health outcomes in both children and adults. One stand-out statistic from the Let’s Get Physical report on Mental Health is that adults participating in daily physical activity are 20%-30% less likely to suffer from depression or dementia.
However, mental health is not all about problems with big headlines like depression, bipolar or schizophrenia. It is also about everyday wellbeing and the maintenance of a balanced mind. Stress. Self-esteem. Mood. Preventing or reversing cognitive decline as you age. All of these things are positively impacted by physical activity.
These are issues that affect literally everyone. Do you snap at people close to you when you’re stressed? Do you worry about your appearance? These are totally regular, everyday concerns connected to your mental wellbeing.
One of the greatest messages that we try to convey at Digme is that health should not be confused with vanity. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t occasionally worry about how you look, but it is fallacy to assume that success in health is all about appearance. In fact, quite the opposite – if you obsess about looks, in the long-run you’re standing on a melting iceberg.
Our instructor and high profile influencer Tally Rye has written a blog on her journey and relationship with fitness, appearance and approach to health and eating. In it, Tally talks about how, earlier in her life, chasing after aesthetic goals led her to be unhappy. This story, or versions of it, are all too common and can sometimes end tragically – with people suffering from anorexia, bulimia or other ailments.
I sympathise with this. I enjoy food. I have a body type that tends to operate with a certain amount of cutaneous fat. I *love* exercise but to get my body fat down to levels that I achieve for peak races either takes serious food consumption discipline, massive amounts of training, or – in reality – both. That is fine for the big athletic goals in my life, but I want to live a little in between!
So, at Digme when we advocate exercise – it’s not all about achieving the pump in the mirror (though yes, we all love that feeling!) or the Men’s Health cover model six pack. Instead, it is about 360 degree wellbeing. Exercise helps release endorphins, improving your mood and relieving stress. It helps keep you mentally agile as the years pass. It is social and fun. It is, and should be, much more than pain and chasing body perfection.
Even if you don’t suffer from a serious mental health issue, you should still take your mental health seriously. Taking regular exercise is a proven way to improve it.