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The links between exercise and mental health

We know that exercise can be used to alleviate mental health problems. Mental health charity Mind uses “the power of sport and physical activity to raise awareness, tackle mental health stigmas and support those of us with mental health problems to become more active”. The charity also partners with RED (Run Every Day) to promote the RED January initiative. Thousands of people sign up every year to support their mental health by doing something active every day in January each year.

Exercise doesn’t just help us recover from mental health problems. It also helps us to prevent them. It’s important to nurture our mental health, in just the same way as we might aim to maintain our physical health. As mental health and eating disorders campaigner James Downs recently tweeted, understanding what constitutes good mental health is as important as an awareness of the conditions associated mental ill-health. Physical activity can help us stay both physically and mentally healthy.

How it works

When we exercise, our stress hormone levels are lowered and we produce endorphins. Endorphins lift our mood, making us feel relaxed and optimistic. These direct effects on our chemistry are part of the reason why physical activity benefits our mental health, but they are not the whole story.

Improving your self-image

Exercise can change the way your body looks and feels. Your shape can change, and your strength and stamina will generally increase. As a result of these changes, you are likely to have a more positive self-image. You might feel happier about the way you look, and you are also likely to enjoy feelings of achievement and of being capable of more than you realised. Exercise improves your physical fitness, so that your energy levels increase. This means that you are able to go out and do even more.

Freeing your mind

Ever been stuck staring at a computer screen or page, unable to work out how to tackle a difficult problem, only to give up and go for a walk or do something else instead? Often, when we do this, we find that the answer pops into our heads while we are away from our workspaces. There’s a reason for this. When we exercise, we distract our minds from our daily cares and, while our bodies are busy, we often find ourselves free to think creatively.

Make time for yourself

Whatever type of physical activity you enjoy, make time in your life for it. Especially when you feel under pressure; if you are rushing around, feeling frustrated that you aren’t getting enough done, you probably need to step out of this cycle. Spending just half an hour or so doing some physical activity can relieve feelings of stress and give you a more positive view of yourself and your achievements. Who knows, while your body is busy exercising, your mind could even come up with a creative solution to help you deal with one of your pressing tasks.

Are processed foods at the heart of unhealthy weight gain?

Obesity is likely to affect 1 in 4 adults in the UK. Despite numerous healthy eating campaigns and initiatives to increase daily levels of physical activity, obesity continues to put many of us at risk of developing potentially serious health conditions like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Even more worrying is the rise in childhood obesity, which has led the government to set out a plan for action.

The reasons why we more of us are overweight are complex. Last week, scientists reported that people who have a light on (such as from a television) at night while sleeping are more likely to be obese. As the researchers point out, this doesn’t necessarily mean that falling asleep in front of the television causes obesity. The people who took part in the study could also have been affected by other factors, such as having high-sugar processed foods, known to be linked to increased weight gain, in their diet.

Processed foods and obesity

The government focuses on processed food and drinks in its plan for action on childhood obesity. The plan aims to reducing the sugar content of foods children eat, and regulate the advertising of products high in fat, sugar and salt.

Food processing is useful; it can delay spoiling so that food can be stored for longer. It can also make some foods more digestible. For example, people have been making grains such as wheat digestible for thousands of years, by milling them and making them into bread. The trouble with processing may be that it affects how our bodies respond to food.

The sugar habit

Fresh fruits and vegetables make us feel full because they are high in fibre, but often processed food delivers a lot of energy quickly. When we eat it, we might not feel as full as we would if we’d taken on the same amount of energy from fresh, unprocessed food.

In fact, processed foods may be highly habit forming, with some experts concerned that sugar addictions are a significant issue. The jury is out on whether sugar is truly addictive, but the NHS does consider binge eating disorder to be of concern. The disorder is characterised by the regular eating of large portions of food until a person feels uncomfortably full, often followed by feelings of upset or guilt. It’s easy to overeat processed snack foods like crisps and biscuits.

“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Michael Pollan gave this short answer to the question of how to eat healthily in an article written in 2007, but if eating healthily is this simple, why are we finding it so difficult? The key may lie in Michael Pollan’s definition of “food”. In his article he makes it clear that he means whole food, like a banana or a pear, not processed food like a snack bar. He suggests that if your great-great-grandmother wouldn’t recognize something as food, you probably shouldn’t eat it.

Might we actually stay healthier by eating more food, but less food “products”?

Could You Run Ultra?

When writer Adharanand Finn was asked by a magazine editor to run the Oman Desert Marathon and then write an article about it, he refused. It’s easy to see why; it’s a 165 km race across a desert.

After giving the idea some thought however, he began to see it less as a race and more as an adventure. On this basis, he decided to take the challenge on. It became the first of many ultra runs for the writer. He’s part of a fast-growing global interest in ultra-running, with around a 1,000% increase in the number of people who take part in these events over the past 10 years.

A real-life Forrest Gump

There are some amazing stories attached to ultra-runners. Take for example veterinary surgeon Rob Pope, who completed the Marathon des Sables in April this year. Often termed “a real-life Forrest Gump”, Rob has been running to raise funds and awareness for charities WWF and Peace Direct since 2001. In 2016 he set off from Alabama to run 15,000 miles through the United States, paying homage to the route taken by Tom Hanks’ character in the film.

What is an ultra-marathon?

Any race longer than a marathon is an ultra-race, so there is a lot of variation between events. Each brings its own challenge. The Marathon des Sables is a self-sufficient race, meaning that you carry all your own food and equipment for the 6-day expedition on your back as you cross 250km through sand dunes and over rocky “jebels” (mountains or hills). In contrast, the longest certified footrace in the world is the Annual Self-Transcendence 3100-Mile Race. Participants in this ultra-run must cover an average of 59.6 miles every day for 52 consecutive days. They do this by circuiting a .5478-mile loop around a sports field, playground, and high school in Queens, New York City.

Why do it?

We all have a surprisingly similar physical capacity for endurance activities like ultrarunning. Scientists have found that there is a biologically determined ceiling on performance, of around two and a half times our basal metabolic rate. Beyond that, the body burns calories faster than they can be replaced with food and must dip into fat reserves for energy. Ultrarunners train to maintain their activity around or below that ceiling for extended periods of time.

Adharanand Finn finds that ultrarunning is a meditation in movement. When you become tired but keep on going, everything else just melts away. He says he comes to a strangely peaceful place where he is fully present in the moment. Ultrarunning becomes a journey to self-discovery.

Could you?

With enough training and preparation, it seems that ultrarunning is possible for many of us, although it takes a lot of time and commitment and may not be everyone’s cup of tea! If you don’t currently run and would like to set a more modest goal, the Couch to 5K provides an excellent plan. Alternatively, you might walk your way to self-discovery.