Exercise is very good for you. We should all do it and we should do it regularly. We should aim to run faster, jump higher, get into that unendingly twisty yoga pose and as a result we will all live well fulfilled, happy lives until we are 100 years old.
Well in part as if it as that simple then we wouldn’t see things like the following statistics released in 2018:
“Out of 543 professional football players studied 43% reported significant issues with anxiety or depression, with approximately a third also struggling with sleep disorders.”
Now there are other elements that come into play here as of course elite or professional athletes will have additional burdens placed on their performance which can impact their emotional wellbeing.
However what I want to concentrate on today is the underlying physiological processes that will contribute to these kinds of symptoms as even for those of us that I would term ‘everyday athletes’ the effect of physical activity on mental wellbeing and the health of our nervous system is perhaps not something you have ever considered as double-sided.
So what do I mean by this? Well hopefully all will become beautifully clear in the next few paragraphs! Basically, there are two things to consider when exercising.
Exercise naturally creates toxins as waste products and this is why we need to add plenty of antioxidants in our diet to prevent them from causing damage.
If we begin with the physical structure of our nervous system, it is possibly one of the most finely tuned networks within our whole body. This incredible ability however is down to a hugely delicate structure; single cells in chains, wrapped in a layer of insulation known as myelin. This is where I want to turn my attention first.
When we exercise our body has to increase the amount of energy it produces to fuel that activity, and as a natural byproduct we see a resultant increase the amount of free radicals generated as waste products. This is entirely natural, however what we need to look at is the ‘mopping up’ ability someone has for these.
The fundamental requirement here is for antioxidants – your phytochemicals (the colourful pigments found in natural foods), your vitamins and minerals.
Now a lovely rainbow coloured diet is a fantastic place to start but specific elements such as magnesium, the B vitamins, zinc, vitamin C, omega 3 fats and vitamin D tend to be required in higher quantities than the everyday person may be eating, and this is where we need to be careful.
If left unchecked free radicals will cause damage and that delicate structure I was talking of before can come under attack. This can give unpleasant symptoms liked tiredness or fatigue, and in the long term can lead to things like neurodegenerative conditions.
If we grab magnesium as a simple example – yes we need it for many of our liver detoxification processes which are part of our primary elimination network, but we also need it for muscular recovery (which we’ll need to do more of after exercise of course) and for the production of serotonin and melatonin (our ‘happy’ and sleep inducing hormones respectively).
So if we are exercising 3-5 days a week, live in a busy city, have an element of stress in our lives and perhaps have a drink at the weekend then we could probably count on our magnesium requirement being rather large. And as we would do ourselves if we had limited time for a list of tasks, if our body doesn’t quite have enough magnesium to go around it will prioritise.
Toxins can’t stay in the body so they’ll be dealt with first, and here we could be looking at innately produced toxins from that energy production as well as car fumes/pollution etc, and then we come to that muscular recovery but oops just by the time our body is catching up we’ve dived into another workout or walked down a busy road, not eaten enough green vegetables at breakfast and lunch and the cycle starts all over again.
So what happens when there’s not enough magnesium to cover all those bases? Well the elements of less necessity to our survival suffer, and this may manifest differently in different people but classically we feel anxious, we don’t sleep so well, we get aches, pains or twitches in our muscles, our exercise recovery time gets longer and we generally don’t feel so fantastic.
And that’s just highlighting one single element in a web of literally hundreds of components, co-factors and processes continuously going on in our bodies at all times, so you can imagine if we are missing the targets on even a couple of those integral elements then we aren’t going to be functioning at our best.
The type of exercise that we choose is super important. Listen to your body and see what its response to various types of exercise is telling you.
The other thing I mentioned was this idea of the appropriateness of exercise and how this may vary between individuals, and this is something that in my experience should definitely be paid far more attention to than it is when it comes to mental health.
Another entirely natural consequence of physical activity is the production of adrenaline and cortisol, these stress hormones being the reason we feel bouncy, full of energy and even elated after a good workout. But similarly to the way magnesium has many functions in the body, these hormones will be triggered by other elements of our lifestyle – long working hours, general life stress, excess caffeine, poorly regulated blood sugar, and if they are circulating constantly we are held in a state of nervous system hyperarousal AKA our ‘fight or flight’ mode which naturally makes us more alert, but also more jumpy and more anxious.
It will actually also interfere with things like our short term memory and ability to concentrate, in addition to playing with the restfulness of our sleep cycle as it has no way of differentiating between our modern stressors and those classical hunter gatherer-esque ones such as running away from an angry bear. We don’t need to remember where we put our keys if we’re dead from not escaping fast enough after all!
But as I started out by saying exercise is important for our overall health and therefore this piece is not meant to send you all to your sofas by the time you finish reading. The types of exercise that will really trigger the above cycle are those intense cardio sessions – your running, spinning, versa climber style classes that push your heart rate to its maximum range and keep it there for prolonged periods. Strength or interval training will cause some stress response stimulation but compared to that first list would be considered far less burdensome for the body as the bursts of intensity are shorter.
More stability or balanced based forms of activity such as yoga, pilates or steady swimming (sprint swimming would be a form of interval training) actually work the opposite way and help to balance the stress response, and if coupled with practises such as mindfulness or meditation will actually lower cortisol levels and encourage rewiring and/or regeneration of nervous tissue.
Once again what I’m trying to highlight here is the importance of consideration and tailoring, but also one of being aware of little signs that your body could do with a helping hand. If you do perhaps feel like you’re not quite as well as you’d like, maybe your training results have started to plateau, you’re more tired or more achy after you exercise, your digestion has gone a tad off piste, or your significant other keeps saying you’ve become slightly more short tempered than you were in the past it’s not just a signal to push harder, in fact it’s probably just the opposite.
All of the above would be little flags to me that someone is definitely not matching their outgoings with their incomings, now for some this may be accounted for with dietary and lifestyle changes but I do also regularly use therapeutic supplements such as Power Up and Unplug with my clients (and I take them myself!) to bridge that gap between their needs and the amount of colourful vegetables, oily fish, unprocessed fats and fresh herbs that I can physically get them to eat and yoga sessions I can get them to attend!