Mental health week: breaking out the bike

Why I’ve Found Physical Activity is So Important

A blog from Richard Ballantyne, British Ports Association  

Richard BallantyneFollowing the pandemic I’ve reflected, and in my non-expert opinion, I would suggest people can broadly be split into two categories based on their behaviour. The first, spent little time exercising, instead they worked or relaxed at home for want of being able to leave the house. The second, used the opportunity to exercise at home or when permitted, take lengthy walks, jogs or bike rides about their neighbourhood. Unfortunately, I fall within the first demographic, and it also turned into an incredibly busy time workwise, which may explain why I, and many others like me, experienced a decline in happiness. It also explains why my suit is now rather tight! 

While the importance of physical activity has been well-established, recent studies have been published emphasising the debilitating effect enforced indolence has had on the nation’s mental health. There were approximately 4.3 million referrals for conditions such as depression and anxiety in 2021 (2). This constitutes a mental health crisis in the UK, but could something as simple as exercise really help? And for those who have little time in the day to go to the gym or for a walk, what options are available? 

According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 23% of adults (and an unsurprising 81% of adolescents) fail to meet their recommendations for physical activity in order to maintain their health (1). Keeping active is likely to extend your lifespan, and aerobic exercise increases blood circulation, which, as I understand, impacts the hypothalamic, pituitary, and adrenal glands. These glands interact with important areas of the brain that regulate how we react to certain stimuli. For example, the hippocampus plays an important part in memory formation, mood, and motivation while the amygdala generates fear in response to stress. This explains why exercise alleviates symptoms such as low self-esteem, stress, and anxiety (3). 

There is also much evidence to suggest that neglecting mental health in favour of physical fitness, can be detrimental to both. According to the Centre for Disease Control, unregulated stress, depression, and PTSD can increase your heart rate and levels of cortisol, which, over time, can lead to calcium build-up in your arteries. If left untreated, this build can lead to heart and metabolic diseases which could prove potentially fatal (4). It seems obvious then, to take care of both body and mind, in order to avoid a dangerous cycle of mental and physical disorders.  

However, that is often easier said than done. Modern life is not always designed with physical activity in mind, with many people, me included, often preferring to spend what little free time they have relaxing, rather than pumping iron. The NHS suggests that adults between the ages of 19 and 64 find time for 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, spread out over four to five days. This includes walking, tennis, or even just pushing a lawn mower around. For those with children, the NHS also suggests walking them to school and back, or breaking the 150 minutes up into ten-minute routines that can be scattered throughout the week.  

Few people enjoy physical activity, otherwise gyms wouldn’t make half their annual membership sales in January. However, it has become more evident in recent years just how critical it is for wellbeing, your brain is not independent of your body, and vice versa. It takes a whole-body approach to alleviate poor mental health. And as with anything, the better your mental health, the better you perform at work, as well as in your personal life.