Why exercise could be the boost you need this World Mental Health Day: 'It's an escape'

The benefits of working out have long been touted, but this year have become even more apparent

People who exercise regularly are less likely to suffer with mental health problems, according to the experts. NRG Fitness

Each October, World Mental Health Day aims to shed light on the importance of psychological well-being and encourage people to talk about how they are feeling. This year, though, it is ever so slightly more important.

With the coronavirus pandemic disrupting just about every aspect of life this year, the mental health of millions the world over has been affected. Whether from the stress of financial pressures brought on by the pandemic, anxiety over health, isolation from spending more time at home, or grief from losing a loved one, it's been a worrying and unsettling time.

This World Mental Health Day, which falls on Saturday, we could all do with taking a step back to check in with ourselves and how we are feeling, and doing something to give ourselves a boost.

One of the simplest ways to do that is to exercise. It does not have to be strenuous, a simple walk can be enough to make you feel more positive. According to the UK's Mental Health Foundation, there is a 20 per cent to 30 per cent lower risk of depression and dementia in adults who participate in daily physical activity.

Kim Henderson is a clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre. Courtesy German Neuroscience Centre

"Regardless of age or fitness level, making time for exercise is definitely beneficial for our mental health and closely linked to brain function," says Kim Henderson, clinical psychologist at the German Neuroscience Centre. "Exercise boosts happy chemicals, such as endorphins, to create feelings of happiness and euphoria. As your heart rate increases, it also increases the concentration of norepinephrine in the brain, which helps to regulate your mood and reduce feelings of anxiety by helping the body deal with stress."

These benefits have become all the more apparent during the course of this year. As people were confined to their homes, and with gyms and fitness clubs closed, many quickly felt the effect inactivity was having on their mental well-being, and turned to online workouts as an outlet.

Between March and July, British personal trainer Joe Wicks, aka The Body Coach, encouraged children and parents the world over to exercise regularly by following his YouTube videos while staying home. His PE with Joe series garnered more than 80 million views.

In the UAE, many gyms also took their programmes online, offering group sessions over Zoom. “When people have their routines, that’s what helps them through life and helps them to feel grounded, and when you take that away, people can really struggle,” says Christina Guastella, owner of Dubai’s NRG Fitness. “We made sure the classes continued to fit with people’s regular routines, which provides that structure and can really help.”

NRG Fitness co-founder and fitness coach Christina Guastella. Courtesy NRG

Since gyms have been allowed to reopen, NRG has experienced an influx of new members joining, as well as a number of corporate inquiries from businesses aiming to put wellness programmes in place for their employees. "We've seen a huge increase in people coming through the door, many of whom have never stepped foot in a gym before," says NRG's manager and cycling coach Helle Bachofen von Echt. "We find that people are coming to us to get away from the stresses of their daily lives, to relax and to feel energised, and this is nothing to do with the physical, that's a whole other aspect, but mentally, this is what exercise can do for you."

NRG also credits its group training environment, adding a social aspect to classes, as a further pull for people who have been struggling during months of isolation at home. “You come in, you struggle together, you sweat together, and you feel part of something. Regardless of how different your lives may be outside the gym, for that hour, you all have the same goal and you all leave with the same sense of euphoria,” Guastella says.

Gym owner Daniel Andrews is someone who knows first-hand the effect exercise can have on fitness. “I suffer with my mental health myself, and if it gets bad, the only way I can deal with it is by exercising,” he says. “By going for a run, or coming to the gym, it forces me to think about something else. I just put my headphones on and get my endorphins going, and it’s an escape. For me, that’s key. So it was really difficult going from being someone who was really active to not being able to leave the house for a period of time.”

But since his gym, Instabody, at Five Jumeirah Village, reopened, Andrews feels all the more passionate about helping people with their mental health. "[Since stay-at-home orders were lifted], we've been helping a six-year-old boy get active again, right up to a 70-year-old woman who wants to keep moving," he says. "I want this gym to be a community gym, a body-positive space. And I am just as focused on improving people's mental health as their physical health. I want to try and help people find that one thing they really enjoy, that will have them coming back and building routines that in turn will help them tackle issues in their life head on."

Exercise is never just about losing weight, for many people now it is about confidence, endorphins and working together with others to achieve your goals

Instabody will hold its first community open day on Saturday, between 10am and 3pm, to shine a spotlight on the benefits that regular exercise can have on general mental well-being. Throughout the open day, the gym will host free mini training sessions including HIIT, yoga, meditation and boxing suitable for all ages and abilities.

"I know that there are many vulnerable individuals out there who have been affected by the pandemic and the emotional strain of having to stay at home, so if we can offer help and support through training for even one person, I'd be very happy," Andrews says. "Exercise is never just about losing weight. And for many people now it's about confidence, endorphins and working together with others to achieve your goals."

Henderson agrees: “Exercise offers incredible benefits that can improve nearly every aspect of your health from the inside out. I prescribe it to all of my patients – give it a go.”