exercise & mental wellness
In the past I have been an irregular participant of running and hiking, but presently swimming is my go-to exercise. For me exercise is less about physical fitness and more for quietude; for self reflection and regaining control. When I’m swimming I can’t get overly ambitious. If I swim more vigorously I’ll start gasping for air and my performance drops as my anxiety rises. Swimming laps is both rhythmically monotonous and also holistically stimulating. For a neurodivergent brain such as mine that is a sweet combo. Being regular and repeated there is nothing to distract me. The only thing my brain can do is go along for the ride, which is a great meditation. We’ve covered our breathing Mental Health Monday.
So what’s with all the swimming? Well at the moment I’m recovering from burnout. A new job coupled with some personal troubles has led to overload on top of overload until I was scraping the bottom of the barrel. The first step is realising you have a problem. The next is dealing with it, and swimming has been one of the ways of combating the anxiety and depression that can come with burnout*.
So what is the broader word on exercise being good for mental health?
In addition to making me hungry, the Mayo Clinic has some comprehensive advice about exercise balancing out depression and anxiety. I know that when I’m depressed, drumming up motivation for exercise can feel impossible. Joining a dance class with instructors shouting “Woo!” is not my thing. I learnt early in life that I’m not much of a “woo” person – even at my emotional peak. But exercise doesn’t mean olympic level training, or filming a TikTok of you over exerting in lycra. It can be as simple as walking. Research from Stanford found walking can increase your creative output by 60%.
Any physical activity can be beneficial, including gardening, washing your car, and the covid staple – walking around the block.
Doing 30 minutes or more of exercise a day for three to five days a week may significantly improve depression or anxiety symptoms. But smaller amounts of physical activity — as little as 10 to 15 minutes at a time — may make a difference Mayo Clinic (2017) Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms
Probably one of the most promising findings is that regular exercise of any intensity has a protective effect against future depression and is recommended to prevent recurrence of depression. The Black Dog Institutes info sheet on Exercise & Depression has a lot more information.
For a lot of us putting our personal needs first is difficult. Advocating for others is a great way for me to trick myself into doing work for my own good. For example, finding time to swim everyday is hard. But when I saw the Laps for Life charity to raise money for youth mental health it was a great way to align a cause that I support with my own needs. So far this month I’ve swum over 10km in 12 days.
So in case you find yourself struggling, changing your scene with some light exercise might help you get back on track. As always though, reach out if you are doing it hard. A health professional like your local Dr is a good first port of call, as are friends, family and your support network.
Let me know what your experience is with exercise and mental wellness.
* never fear we are not going to gloss over the thorny topic of burnout, and the 41 flavours that it takes throughout the neuro-diversi-sphere. It is a solid topic that deserves its own conversation(s). Just preferably when I’ve had a bit of a repair.
 Mayo Clinic (2017) Depression and anxiety: Exercise eases symptoms
 May Wong (2014). Stanford study finds walking improves creativity
 Harvey, S. B., Øverland, S., Hatch, S. L., Wessely, S., Mykletun, A., & Hotopf, M. (2018). Exercise and the Prevention of Depression: Results of the HUNT Cohort Study. American
Journal of Psychiatry, 175(1), 28–36.
 Black Dog Institute, Exercise & Depression | Black Dog Institute
 Schuch, F. B., Vancampfort, D., Richards, J., Rosenbaum, S., Ward, P. B., & Stubbs, B. (2016). Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias. Journal of Psychiatric Research, 77, 42–51. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jpsychires.2016.02.023
 Laps for Life charity fundraiser https://www.lapsforlife.com.au/fundraisers/heathwilder