The connection between physical activity and mental wellbeing
goes deeper than endorphins, and those in the business of getting
us moving are making sure we know about it.
Words Christine de Felice
Turn to any news media platform, on any day, and a topic that is likely to be mentioned now is mental health. Internationally, it has become a significant health issue, with the World Health Organisation determining that by next year depression will be the second-leading cause of disability in the world.
Prince William was reported as raising the issue during his recent visit to Pakistan with the Duchess of Cambridge, while just last month our Government announced a $6-million funding boost for mental health services at 22 general practices around the country.
Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety are not isolated conditions, however – the connection between mental and physical health and wellbeing is widely recognised, not only by health professionals, but also by practitioners in the exercise and wellness industries. Offering a range of programmes and facilities, these practitioners say if people take advantage of them they can improve both their physical and mental health, leading to happier, more fulfilled lives.
Owner/operators of three 9Round franchises in Christchurch, Paige and Ellis Powerman, believe 90 per cent of people that go to the gym do so because they are feeling down, and are unhappy with their physical fitness. For many, the hope is to lose weight by going to the gym, as they think that will make them feel happy, Paige says.
“But losing weight has got nothing to do with being happy,” she says. “It’s the sense of empowerment people get from learning new skills and letting go of the stress that produces that feeling of happiness and wellbeing. Rather than focusing on the weight loss, their focus needs to be on being happy, on how they feel.”
She adds: “Exercise is the best form of anti-depressant you can have.”
Several times a year 9Round runs six-week challenges, which take a holistic approach to weight loss, combining mental, social, physical and spiritual aspects.
“The challenge is not about losing weight, it’s about changing behaviour to get people back on track. The goal is to change people’s mental state,” Paige says.
Both women say that unfortunately there is a stigma around six-week challenges, which they are keen to dispel.
“We also share challenges we have had in our lives,” Ellis says, “and that helps people’s confidence, knowing that, even though we are their trainers, we have faced challenges too.”
Body mechanic Wayne Armour, who owns and runs NZBMA with his mother Dawn Armour, a remedial specialist, and partner Danual Cattermoul, a stretch specialist, says people get into exercise for two reasons – to lose weight, or to escape.
“Often, it’s a coping strategy when they are experiencing stress in their life,” Wayne says, “and a core benefit of exercise is the relief of mental tension. The endorphins, or ‘happy hormones’ that are released by the body following exercise produce a natural ‘high’, relieving stress and anxiety. It becomes addictive.”
We all know that sinking feeling in the pit of our stomach when we are worried about something. As Wayne explains, that is because our abdominal muscle (iliopsoas) is connected to our emotions. If the situation is ongoing, having a specialised massage treatment will release tension in the abdominal muscles and consequently the feelings of stress and anxiety will be relieved, he says.
In situations of extreme stress or trauma, a person will often adopt the foetal position to protect the vulnerable abdominal region, Wayne says.
Someone who is feeling stress or anxiety will often talk about it with their therapist, which Wayne says is also an important aspect of their treatment.
He also notes that anxiety can cause a person to hunch their shoulders creating tension in the neck muscles.
“When this happens, you need to change your position and relax your shoulders as the tension can also affect the alignment of other muscles,” Wayne says.
“We believe it’s about people being educated on how they can improve both their physical and mental health. It’s said that knowledge is power. But it’s what you do with that knowledge that’s the real power.”
There are other ways of relieving mental stress, which don’t involve as much physical exertion but can be equally effective – for example, yoga, meditation, flotation therapy, ice bath sauna, massage, all of which are being offered at a new wellness space opening next month in central Christchurch.
“For people experiencing emotional difficulties, such as with their relationships, natural practices like yoga and meditation can be very effective,” says Sam Thomas, who is co-founding the soon-to-open O-Studio with professional rugby player Tim Bateman and yoga teacher Jess Smith.
“There has been a lot of research on how these practices can help in deeper ways,” Sam says.
“Practising sustained focus on the breath for just 20 minutes in meditation can help us be more present with our children or at work.”
This task aims to increase mindfulness, which has garnered a lot of attention of late. However, as Sam points out, this is just one of a range of meditative practices used in research to boost other important qualities like self-confidence and resilience to help people better deal with situations in their lives.
The effectiveness of yoga in improving mental wellbeing and enhancing self-esteem has been shown through extensive research, and it has been used in wellness programmes around the world for many years.
To Sam, yoga is about “moving your body to change your mind”.
“Yoga teaches people to become aware of what's happening in their body, leading to better reactions to changes in mood that commonly occur throughout the day.”
Flotation therapy, which was developed at the US National Institute of Mental Health in 1954, has experienced a surge in popularity in recent years as a stress relief tool. After trying flotation therapy overseas, Tim and his wife Laura established Christchurch’s first flotation therapy centre, Cloud 9 Float Club, in 2015.
“Research indicates that flotation is among the top 25 per cent of relaxation tools known to psychology,” Sam says, “and it is now being used to combat burnout, stress and anxiety disorders.
“Because sensory input is reduced to a minimum, the body quickly recognises that you are free of environmental threats, which helps you to fall into a deep state of relaxation.”
Each flotation pod is about the size of an average car and the water contains a quantity of Epsom salts, making it buoyant enough for the participant to float, he says.
Stress, anxiety, burnout, low self-esteem – these can affect us all at different times in our life, but the tools to overcome them are readily available.
In the words of Sam: “There are many pathways to improving mental wellbeing through physical activity, and they can all build up reward pathways – pathways to becoming the best you can be.”
And the first step, is starting that journey – for your body and your mind.