National Fitness Day: Exercise and Mental Health

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exercise and mental health

As National Fitness Day approaches, the event serves as a poignant reminder of the crucial role exercise plays in maintaining overall wellbeing. Beyond the physical benefits, exercise has emerged as a powerful tool for improving mental health.

National Fitness Day is the UK’s largest physical activity day and raises awareness of the role that physical activity plays in our lives, assisting us to lead healthier lifestyles. This year is takes place on 20th September.

As we celebrate National Fitness Day, let’s explore how engaging in regular physical activity can have a positive impact for those struggling with mental health conditions.

The intricate link between physical activity and mental health cannot be understated. Engaging in exercise releases endorphins, commonly referred to as the “feel-good” hormones, which can significantly alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. Regular exercise has been shown to reduce stress, improve mood, and enhance self-esteem. These benefits extend to individuals grappling with conditions such as OCD and depression, offering them a holistic approach to help manage their conditions and alleviate symptoms1.

One of the most common mental health conditions affecting our current society is depression. In England, an estimated 1 in 6 adults have experienced a ‘common mental health disorder’ like depression2.

Studies show that there is approximately a 20% to 30% lower risk of depression for adults participating in daily physical activity3.

Physical activity triggers the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine, which play a crucial role in regulating mood. Engaging in exercise can offer a sense of purpose and accomplishment, countering the feelings of worthlessness often associated with depression. Furthermore, the social aspect of group exercises or outdoor activities can combat the isolation that depression tends to foster. In fact, some research has even suggested that exercise is more effective in treating depression in comparison to current medications4.

Regular exercise can also help manage the symptoms of other mental health conditions such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

OCD is a mental health condition characterised by intrusive, unwanted, and repetitive thoughts, images, or urges (obsessions) that lead to repetitive behaviours or mental acts (compulsions) that help to temporarily reduce the anxiety associated with the obsessions. It is estimated that almost 750,000 people in the UK are living with OCD5.

Exercise can be a potent coping mechanism for individuals with OCD and other anxiety-related disorders. Engaging in physical activity helps divert attention away from distressing, intrusive thoughts, allowing individuals to help break the cycle of compulsions.

While the benefits of exercise for mental health are clear, choosing the right exercise regimen is important. For individuals with OCD and depression, low-impact activities like yoga, swimming, and walking can be particularly beneficial. These activities encourage mindfulness, relaxation, and steady progress, aligning perfectly with the goals of managing OCD and depression symptoms.

Yoga specifically, strengthens the areas of the brain that are responsible for memory, attention, awareness thought, and language. Cognitive decline is a common side-effect of depression; studies using MRI scans have shown that people who regularly practiced yoga had a thicker cerebral cortex (the area of the brain responsible for information processing) and hippocampus (the area of the brain involved in learning and memory)6.

It’s important to remember that the journey towards improved mental health is unique for each individual, so finding the right exercise routine may require some trial and error. While exercise can be a powerful complement to traditional treatments for OCD and depression, it is also essential to approach it as part of a comprehensive strategy.

MAC Clinical Research is committed to improving the quality of life through clinical trials for those living with mental health conditions like OCD and depression.

We are currently investigating a potential new medication that is thought to target a different signalling pathway in the brain to current OCD treatments, which may help to control obsessive or compulsive behaviours.

The trial is taking place at MAC clinics in Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Merseyside, South Staffordshire, South Yorkshire, Teesside, and West Yorkshire.

To be eligible, you must:

  • Be aged between 18 and 65 years old.
  • Have had OCD or OCD symptoms for at least 1 year.
  • Feel that your current OCD medication (antidepressant) is not fully working.

Eligible participants may receive up to £490 for their time and commitment to the study, along with reasonable travel costs or transport to clinic visits. If the treatment works, you may be allowed to continue taking it (known as an open-label extension) for up to 48 weeks.

For more information on how you can get involved, visit our OCD Research page.

To find out about potential future clinical trials for depression or other mental health conditions, please visit our future trials webpage.

1 Mind – Physical activity and your mental health

2 House of Commons Library – Mental health statistics: prevalence, services and funding in England

3 Mental Health Foundation – How to look after your mental health using exercise

4 British Journal of Sports Medicine – Effectiveness of physical activity interventions for improving depression, anxiety and distress: an overview of systematic reviews

5 NHS Inform – Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)

6 Harvard Health Publishing – Yoga for better mental health

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