Why we should embrace exercise on prescription
Words: Lucy Fry
Exercise on prescription? Yes, it’s happening! After having been hailed as the cleanest wonder-drug known to man (second perhaps only to sleep), exercise is now being recommended as a surefire means of improving wellbeing, as well as treatment for a range of mental health conditions, including depression. Even 25 minutes per day of moderate-vigorous exercise (150 minutes a week) can cut your risk of depression by 22 per cent, according to a new international study, while scientists in Australia also revealed that ditching your weekly exercise regime leaves you at a greater risk of depressive symptoms (especially if you’re a woman). Take these steps to making your exercise sessions work for your mind as well as your body…
Working out in a group could reduce your stress by 26 per cent. That’s what one study released last year suggested, while research from 2015 showed that friends who move together tended to get on better, too. Suzy Reading, a psychologist, yoga teacher and author of The Self-Care Revolution, isn’t surprised. ‘Social connection is a basic human need, an evolutionary drive,’ she says. ‘It’s all about a sense of shared experience and shared purpose, so the “we’re in this together” mentality during exercise can be fantastic. Make sure it’s a supportive crowd of people, though, and ideally you need to be matched in terms of levels and abilities.’
As well as boosting our physical health, the benefits of exercise include mindfulness, too. ‘Getting out in nature is like hitting the reboot button,’ says Reading. ‘It’s so important to take yourself away from screens so you can appreciate space and fresh air. This helps us to reconnect with what is most important in life.’ Nature Deficit Disorder (a term coined in 2005 by Richard Louv) might sound like just another trendy excuse to lie out in the garden all day, but trees and green spaces are now being recognised as evidence-based natural memory and mood boosters. Even a short time spent moving in the great outdoors can have genuine benefits on mood, especially for those struggling with mental wellbeing.
‘Most people know that movement has an anti-depressant effect, but there are also particular shapes we can make with our bodies that are uplifting,’ says Reading. ‘If you sit with a rounded posture for hours on the computer, it lowers the energy levels and mood, whereas doing heart and chest-opening postures in yoga have the opposite effect.’ One study from New Zealand found that adopting a more open posture (sitting upright with shoulders drawn back and down) could make those suffering with mild-to-moderate depression feel more positive and energised.
Breath into it
‘We know that when we breathe better, we feel better,’ says Reading. ‘This is because when your breath is more expansive, it soothes your nervous system [which can ratchet up if you’re under pressure].’ It’s so powerful, in fact, that breathing exercises have even been used to help war veterans with PTSD symptoms. So next time you’re feeling depleted and stressed, ditch the headphones and exercise mindfully.
Using your mind to prepare for your movement sessions can enhance the benefits. Even simply bringing up positive memories while exercising can help generate positive emotions, say researchers. But what about self-talk? ‘It’s possible to harness your inner dialogue – the words that we choose as we speak to ourselves – with visualisations in order to get the best possible impact from your movement sessions,’ says Reading, who recommends using ‘priming statements’ to help with exercise motivation. If there are things that get in the way of you exercising, like the rain, your primer statement would be, ‘If it’s raining, I will roll out my mat and do 20 minutes of yoga,’ or, ‘I’ll drive to the swimming pool and do 20 lengths instead.’ ‘Prepare these statements in advance,’ says Reading. ‘Write them down and keep them to hand.’
Make it a routine
Don’t exhaust yourself with too much choice before you exercise (that thing called ‘decision fatigue’ is genuine, you know), but rather make it a routine. A healthy dose of repetitive behaviour could reduce anxiety, say researchers. When taken in moderate doses, a dollop of exercise reduces levels of stress hormones cortisol and noradrenaline. Continual high levels of such hormones place you at risk of stress-related illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia, so you’ll need to keep active to give your body a way of burning them off.