Can exercise improve my mental health?

Monday 16 May 2016

Steve James, Psychological Wellbeing Advisor at Help for Heroes, looks at the benefits of physical activity on psychological wellbeing.

A healthy diet and good levels of exercise are well known to benefit both physical and mental health. Physical exercise can be as effective as medication in treating mild to moderate mental health issues. “Mild to Moderate” refers to cases where someone experiences depression or anxiety for the first time, usually lasting a few months.

Invictus Games Archery

But what if you have something more serious? Does this mean that physical activity will do nothing? Certainly not! While sport and exercise are not a substitute for professionally provided mental health treatments and therapies, they can still be hugely helpful. A good comparison is diet; eating a healthy and balanced diet will not cure an infection, but it will help increase recovery while the antibiotics do their job.

There is something to be said for ‘sport’ as a recovery tool. Getting a sense of achievement, social interaction, developing skills and self-discipline are some of the many areas in which a person can grow just by taking part in a sport – whether individually or as part of a team.

With many injuries, both physical and mental, it can feel like there are limits to what a person can do. But with advances in technology and engineering, those with a life-changing injury or illness can now take part in a huge variety of sports.

However, the most important thing to remember is that it’s not about the sport or activity itself, but the recovery benefits you get from doing it. Some people may never walk again, but that doesn’t mean they can’t get the same rewards as they used to from running. It’s very easy to see a blocked pathway, and to start feeling low or depressed, but focussing on this may mean that you miss out on all the other pathways leading to the same benefits.

Psychological therapies and participating in sport and exercise complement each other incredibly well. I strongly urge those reading this to find the courage to seek support and try different sports and forms of exercise. It is difficult and it can take several attempts to find the right type of psychological support and sport for you, but once you’ve found it you’ll never regret it. There’s great potential for pleasure and growth in your future – be sure not to deny yourself the opportunity.

If you’re a Veteran or an Armed Forces family member, get in touch confidentially with our Hidden Wounds team here to find out more about the mental health support available to you, or you can find out more about Help for Heroes Sports Recovery.


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