Exercise Psychology

This article by psychologist James Kneller is about “Exercise Psychology”. This topic is related to both the mental health benefits of human movement but also the psychology of getting started.

Exercise psychology is related to the mental health gains of physical activity

Before I began working with Condor Performance in 2019 as a performance psychologist (and soon to earn the title of sport psychologist) I was working with a mixture of athletes and the general public. This work leant towards traditional mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, grief and life stressors. In a traditional psychology setting, I am often asked what the best thing to do is to help with these sorts of issues. My answer, after the colloquial “laughter is the best medicine”, is always exercise. 

I take clients through what I call the basic five things to be taking control of to give them the best opportunity for optimal mental health.

These five areas are: 

  • Diet – an appropriate and relatively healthy diet provides the nutrients and energy to deal with daily requirements 
  • Water – adequate hydration of our bodies is vital for both physical and mental health. As I tell my clients our brains transmit their signals through electrical currents, these move more effectively through water than air
  • Appropriate use of drugs – this means taking any medications or supplements required in the way that they were designed and instructed to do along with limiting or avoiding potentially harmful substances such as caffeine, alcohol, cigarettes, and illegal substances
  • Sleep – good sleep is a very close 2nd to my top answer of exercise. In sleep, the body, and particularly the brain is restored, cleaned, and reset to face the next day
  • Exercise – our bodies are designed to move and when we deny them this, they tend to crumble a little including our brains. Modern-day exercise psychology is all about not letting this happen.

Exercise Psychology Basics

It is well known that exercise has numerous physical benefits. For example, physical activity is known to reduce the risk of illnesses like heart and lung disease, diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure, and obesity. It has also been shown to reduce the likelihood or onset of neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s disease, dementia, and Alzheimer’s disease. Those who have had a stroke recover faster. It also improves or maintains muscle mass and bone strength. Exercise is a key component in maintaining or losing weight which leads to a longer life expectancy and likely higher quality of that longer life. 

What is sometimes overlooked is the value of exercise to the brain directly, and to mood and wellbeing associated with this. Studies of the impact of exercise on the brain have found that it improves blood circulation in the brain which helps clarity of thought. It increases the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily responsible for memory. It also improves the connections within nerve cells in the brain improving function and protecting against disease. 

When we exercise the brain releases feel-good chemicals such as endorphins and serotonin. Many of us have heard of “runners’ high” which is this process, but the benefits are not only felt by those who run great distances. Just getting a sweat up will help the brain produce and release more of these chemicals.

The Right Amount of Exercise

When recommendations are made for how much exercise we should be getting it is just 30 minutes per day for five days a week. This does not need to be gut-busting. It does not have to come in one block of 30 minutes and can be broken down into two or three sessions of 10-15 minutes each. 

I mentioned earlier that enough good quality sleep is my 2nd best action for better mental health, and another benefit of exercise is the strong link between increased exercise and improved quality of sleep. The actions of getting a sweat up through the day help the body feel tired and allow it to more effectively regulate itself to have a sleep period and an active period through the day rather than being confused over which is supposed to be the active one. 

One of the most frustrating things that often happens when clients struggle with depression (for example) is that it can rob them of motivation and our belief that they can achieve anything in life. Regular exercise decreases stress hormones which has a beneficial impact on dealing with life stressors and anxiety. When they begin doing some exercise, even one session a week, they begin to develop a sense of achievement and they begin to break the inertia hold of being sedentary. 

I hear clients say they are waiting for some motivation to hit them, but motivation needs to be created it does not just arrive. But like a snowball, once they take one step and do one session it makes the next easier to achieve and so on. As they continue, they can see the benefits for themselves. They might start receiving comments from friends or family on their progress and their self-esteem rises. For some it is the thrill of looser clothing or making it all the way around the block without stopping. The goals do not need to be massive, and neither do the results. The sense of empowerment for a client to see that they can take some charge over their life can be truly life-changing. 

A Pathway To Social Connections

Exercise can be done in isolation, and with the world currently dealing with pandemics and lockdowns this is both relevant and necessary, but it can also provide a pathway to social connections. This is another important component of strong mental health. Whether walking at the local park and simply seeing others doing the same, or joining a community such as weekly park runs, or getting involved with a team sport. When we exercise with others we can get, and provide, motivation and encouragement from them to simply show up when we are not feeling like it. Teams allow us to work on social skills and leadership skills that are transferable to all aspects of life. 

While exercise psychology is not a focus of Condor Performance, and we would expect our clients are already doing much more than the minimum recommendations each week, many of the skills we work on with clients are transferrable. Planning and setting appropriate structured and incremental goals with clients gives the greatest chance of achieving an end goal or dream. Assisting them to find their motivation and focus assists them to break the inertia of stillness. The accountability of someone who is checking in with them regularly and the support through setbacks allows them to know they are not alone. 

In writing this we would hope that even if it does not apply to you, it is something that you might be able to use to start a discussion with family or friends that you have seen struggling with their mental health and point them in the direction of a local psychologist to assist with getting them back in better mental, and physical, shape. 

Author: James Kneller

James grew up in Newcastle (NSW, Australia) with major stints in Melbourne (VIC, Australia) and Hampshire (The United Kingdom). He has returned to Newcastle now but like all of the Condor Performance team, he is available to assist clients via Skype and other web platforms.