By Rory O’Gorman and Anthony Caldwell
It is well known that a combination of poor diet, inactivity, smoking and alcohol consumption are recognized as key contributors to cardiovascular disease. To reduce or eliminate these risk factors we recommend an exercise regime. While physical attributes such as increased muscle mass, reduced weight, increased VO2 max are easy to measure so that we might quantify improvements, what about overall improvements in mental health?And is it the same for us all?
With some exceptions, better overall quality of life has been reported for light intensity exercise undertaken in group settings(Gillison et al., 2009).Indeed, in combination with other lifestyle factors,regular exercise has also been shown to lower the risk of developing cancer, the associated relapse rates and in general, better survival(Thomas, Kenfeld and Jimenez, 2017). Even more startling to learn was the effectiveness of exercise in the treatment for mild depression which Knapen et al (2014) reported was comparable with antidepressant medication and psychotherapy, but stress the importance of traditional forms of medication and therapy.Similarly in children, Bibble and Asare (2011) reported that exercise helped to reduce anxiety and promote improvements in self-esteem, at least in the short term.What is perhaps common here is that although significant benefits are reported,these effects are likely to be greater in those who have poorer mental health in the beginning.
And what about those who are already considered to be ‘fit’? Well, similarly,research on the prevalence of depressive disorders among elite athletes suggests that despite rigorous training and exercise regimes, they are at the same risk as the rest of us. Studies by Gorczynski, Coyle and Gibson (2017) and Junge and Feddermann-Demont (2016) reported that on average, symptoms of a severe depression were present in one player of both female and male top-level football teams. Shedding some light on this area Beable et al., (2016) reported that troubling thoughts about the future and concerns about meeting high standards were the highest reported life stresses.So, despite the appearance of high profile athletes as happy, functional and successful, there may well be underlying anxiety issues. While the gregarious (notorious) Conor McGregor presents the appearance of full confidence in his abilities, he has, we can only assume, encountered life situations that have triggered psychological defense mechanisms to deal with the punishing training regime necessary to maintain peak fitness and compete at international levels. Not least of which is productively dealing with defeat.
This article is not to dismantle the effectiveness of exercise upon mental health, rather, to point out that the connection between mental health and exercise may not be as clear cut as it is often reported. Even if you’re at the top of your game, mental health issues are complex and still present. Whether you’re a high performing athlete or an average bootcamper, you have every right to feel proud of your achievements and comparisons with other isn’t particularly healthy or worthwhile. Bauman (2016) writes that while sport focuses on improving the competitive physique of athletes,developing a healthy mind is also important.The message in all this may be that you might not feel the reported ‘runners high’ today or tomorrow, but keep going, eventually you will get there and achieve your goals. Consistency is the key.
Bauman, N., J., (2016). The Stigma Of Mental Health In Athletes: Are Mental Toughness And Mental Health Seen As Contradictory In Elite Sport?British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 50, No. 3, pp.135-136.
Beable, S., Fulcher, M., Hamilton, B., Chun-lee, A., (2017). Sharp – Sports Mental Health Awareness Research Project: Prevalence and Risk Factors of Depressive Symptoms and Life Stress In Elite Athletes. British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 51.
Biddle,S., J., H., Asare, M., (2011). Physical Activity And Mental Health In Children And Adolescents: A Review Of Reviews. British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 45, pp.886-895.
Gillison, F., B., Skevington, S., M., Sato, A., Standage, M., Evangelidou, S., (2009). The Effects Of Exercise Interventions On Quality Of Life In Clinical And Healthy Populations; A Meta-Analysis. Social Science and Medicine, Vol. 68, pp. 1700-1710.
Gorczynski, P., F., Coyle, M., Gibson, K., (2017). Depressive Symptoms In High-Performance Athletes And Non-Athletes: A Comparative Meta-Analysis. British Journal of Sports Medicine, March 2, pp.1-8.
Junge A, Feddermann-Demont, N., (2016). Prevalence Of Depression And Anxiety InTop-Level Male And Female Football Players. BMJ Sport and Exercise Medicine, Vol. 2, pp. 1-7.
Knapen, J., Vancampfort, D., Morien, Y, Marchal, Y (2015). Exercise Therapy Improves Both Mental And Physical Health In Patients With Major Depression. Disability and Rehabilitation. Vol. 37, No. 16, pp. 1490-1495.
Thomas, R., J., Kenfield, S., A., Jimenez, A., (2017). Exercise-Induced Biochemical Changes And Their Potential Influence On Cancer: A Scientific Review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, Vol. 51, pp.640-644.
Rory O’Gorman runs ‘Next Level Fitness’ in Letterkenny Co. Donegal sharing his passion for achieving peak health and fitness goals with all ages and ranges of fitness.
Anthony Caldwell is a health and fitness advocate and regular trainee with Rory.