With May being Mental Health Awareness Month, we’re highlighting the many things we can do to improve our mental health and well-being. And moving our bodies is definitely one of those things. While we’re familiar with the positive feelings we get from fitness, our recent chat with Brian Truong, Fitness World‘s Director of Fitness Education, helps to shed light on why that is. —Vita Daily
Hi Brian! Please tell us a bit about yourself to start.
Hello! My name is Brian and I am the Director of Fitness Education for Fitness World Canada and the British Columbia Personal Training Institute. I have been training and involved in fitness for over 20 years. I have been a personal trainer for 10 years working commercially and privately and I am also a registered clinical counselor who mainly works with children, youth, young adults and individuals with eating disorders.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month; while many of us have heard that fitness benefits mental health, can you give us an overview on that?
Absolutely! Physical exercise has been linked to several mental health benefits, such as reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety, and stress. Exercise can also enhance mood, improve self-esteem, and promote better sleep quality. Additionally, there are also a myriad of benefits fitness provides that we may typically overlook such as following through, accountability, self-management skills, personal growth and more. There are social benefits to exercising such as being a part of a community, sharing similar interests or goals as others.
What are some of the top benefits to be gained when it comes to the impact of movement on our mental health?
There are many benefits gained from incorporating movement into our lives, including improved mood, reduced stress, better sleep, and increased self-esteem. Exercise has also been shown to improve cognitive function and memory, and may even help to reduce the risk of developing certain mental health conditions, such as dementia. Overall, physical activity supports and improves our quality of life, mentally and physically.
Do different types/intensities of activities/movement impact our mental health differently, or are the benefits the same across the board?
Yes, different types and intensities of activities can have varying impacts on our mental health. Certain activities have different effects on our nervous system and benefits that come from it. Exercise is a form of stress that is being applied to our bodies, it engages our sympathetic nervous system which is involved in up-regulating or activating our nervous system. On the other hand, activities like yoga, stretching or meditation engages our parasympathetic nervous system which helps with down-regulating our nervous system.
Cardiorespiratory exercise or aerobic activity has been shown to be effective in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety. This includes activities such as running, cycling, and swimming. The endorphins released during aerobic exercise can boost mood and energy levels, which can lead to an overall reduction in feelings of depression and anxiety.
Activities such as yoga, tai chi, stretching, and meditation have been linked to reductions in stress, anxiety, and depression. These activities can combine physical movements with mindfulness and meditation techniques, which can help to calm the mind and promote relaxation. It can also help with focusing on being present or being mindful which can be difficult with the amount of stimulation and access to technology.
Regardless of which form of activity you choose to do, the most important thing is choosing the one that you are willing to do and enjoy. Most people fall off their exercise regimens because they often look at it as a means to an end or as a negative experience and have to “force” themselves to accomplish.
Are there any differences between solo and team activities when it comes to mental health gains (or is it really dependent on the individual)? How about indoor versus outdoor fitness?
It depends on the individual. Some people may find that the social support and sense of community that comes with team activities can be particularly helpful for their mental health. Some people will enjoy being on a team or working out in a group, feeling that sense of community, while others prefer to be accomplished by becoming better, faster, stronger at their individual activities.
Outdoor fitness activities such as hiking or running, can also have unique benefits, such as exposure to nature and fresh air, which can positively impact mental health.
How much time is needed, say, daily, to see the positive impacts of movement on mental health?
The amount of time needed to see positive impacts on mental health can vary depending on the individual, the type of activity, and the intensity. However, studies have shown that even just 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per day can have significant mental health benefits. The current recommendation is 150 minutes per week of moderate intensity exercise (such as brisk walking) and up to 75 minutes of vigorous activity so that would be about 30 minutes each day.
Many people don’t reach nearly that amount each day or even week. Often, we face obstacles such as perceived lack of time, lack of confidence or knowledge, feeling tired or unmotivated. Whether it is 30 minutes each day or 5 minutes each day, it’s more helpful to adjust based on what we’re willing to do and gradually increase that.
For a fitness beginner looking to gain the mental health benefits of fitness, what are some starting steps or points of access you would suggest?
For fitness beginners, starting with low-intensity activities such as brisk walking or weight training, as well as finding enjoyable and sustainable activities, is critical. Seeking support from friends or family, joining a fitness group or class, or hiring a personal trainer can also provide additional motivation and accountability. Starting a new activity can be daunting especially if we’ve never done it before or lack confidence in doing it. The main thing would be to make it a part of your life and I would encourage people to treat it like an appointment for yourself. It’s investing in your own self-care.
As an expert in the fitness industry, have you seen firsthand any success stories when it comes to improved mental health as a direct result of fitness/movement? How about personally, in your own life?
I have seen many success stories of improved mental health as a direct result of fitness and movement. As a personal trainer, I have had the privilege to train some of my clients for many years allowing me to see the changes and growth that came from exercise. I often debrief with my clients on how they feel about their progress and goals, what has changed or hasn’t changed. It is rewarding to talk about how exercise and their achievements affected their life. Exercise has become a way to relieve stress for some of them while for others, exercise became an activity that they were doing for themselves. The time they dedicated to improving, training, and growing was an investment back into themselves. When things are hard or we become busy, exercise is often the first thing most people will stop doing which can have a negative effect on our health. It creates a compounding effect of the other stressors in our lives and we can fall off from our other helpful behaviours that accompany maintaining our physical health.