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Can exercising help protect your mental health?

Studies show that daily exercise helps deal with anxiety, stress and even depression. Lounge speaks to experts to find out

Is daily exercise useful in protecting your mental health?
Is daily exercise useful in protecting your mental health? (Istockphoto)

Death, despair and isolation haunts India as covid-19 is ripping through the country. At a time like this, our focus should not only be on staying safe and reducing the chances of infection but also on protecting our mental health. But is it possible to do so by exercising?

That’s exactly what’s on Tanya Rocque’s mind as she squeezes in a workout every day in between her work-from-home routine in Goa. The 28-year-old lead for community engagement and partnerships at Basis, a financial services and community for women, mixes up MMA, HIIT and aerial yoga through the week in her attempt to “stay sane”, as she puts it, through this period of uncertainty.“It’s the best hour of the day because I can tune off with loud music and it’s the only time where I am not scrolling through my phone and inclined to see what’s happening. Now that we are locked up inside our homes again, it is a release and it’s my own time. I try to stick to it the same time everyday and that brings about some semblance of normalcy and routine in my life these days,” Rocque says.

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There is evidence that exercise is beneficial for mental health; it reduces anxiety, depression, and counters negative moods; and it also improves self-esteem and cognitive functions, wrote researcher P Callaghan in his 2004 paper titled Exercise: A Neglected Intervention In Mental Health Care in the Journal of Psychiatric And Mental Health Nursing. In another study, Effects Of Exercise On Anxiety, Depression And Mood published the same year, academic Monika Guszkowska found that “the meta-analyses of correlational and experimental studies reveal positive effects of exercise… The benefits are significant especially in subjects with an elevated level of anxiety and depression because of more room for possible change. The most improvements are caused by rhythmic, aerobic exercises, using of large muscle groups (jogging, swimming, cycling, walking), of moderate and low intensity...The results confirm the acute effect of exercise i.e. the reductions in anxiety and depression after single sessions of exercise.”

Creating normalcy with a daily routine

It was with this aim that Mumbai-based businessman Shahid Lokhandwala, 34, bought some dumbbells during the lockdown last year and created a modified exercise routine for himself. Just like last year, this time too he has been unable to visit his factory. Work has practically come to a halt since stricter restrictions were imposed in Maharashtra in early April. This time, he has converted a part of garage into his workout room. Six days a week, at about 7pm, he does a mix of Crossfit and strength training for about 75 minutes. “There is so much negative news everywhere. Friends, family, everyone you know has one horror story at least. Things like that can make anyone anxious. The one thing that brings me happiness is my workout. I no longer know what’s happening in the outside world and just focus on myself and programming. It puts me in a good space mentally. These workouts have been a blessing for me during these difficult times,” says Lokhandwala, who adds that it helps him sleep better too.

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Apart from exercise, Rocque and Lokhandwala have also developed systems of rewarding themselves. While Rocque has her “wine therapy,” an occasional glass of wine in the evening, Lokhandwala rewards himself every night with two pieces of chocolate before going to bed.

Exercise is beneficial in managing stress and allows you to manage time effectively, taking care of your sleep as well as maintaining your physical wellbeing, explains Kamna Chibber, head of the department of mental health and behavioural sciences, Fortis Healthcare.“In current times it is important to try and maintain routines, stick to schedules, focus on being in the here and now, redirecting yourself to the aspects that you can control, balancing out lifestyle and taking measures to maintain diet, nutrition and exercise. At the same time, it is critical to keep taking all precautions and safety measures to maintain wellbeing,” she says.

Apart from helping maintain mind-body harmony, exercise also helps in boosting our immunity, says Sreeja De Behll, senior consultant clinical psychologist and psychotherapist, Apollo Spectra Hospital in New Delhi. “For emotional wellbeing, exercise could help you de-stress, add meaning to the day, help in focusing on bodily sensations such as breathing and stretching muscles, help in distracting your mind from negative thoughts and to focus on oneself and cut off from any external stimulation.”

Being mindful about mental health

Given the gravity of the current situation, it is important to also monitor your mental health whether you exercise or not. “Currently, a lot of people are experiencing concerns about the health and wellbeing of themselves and their family. It creates feelings of loss of control and helplessness for many thus affecting optimism and resilience. Many are experiencing worry, nervousness, anxiety, low moods, anger and irritability,” says Chibber. The pandemic has also resulted in reduced productivity at work, decreased motivation, lower self-confidence and increased stress and health-related anxiety, adds De Behll.

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Experts also recommend watching out for red flags such as loss of appetite, feeling irritable or angry, sleep disturbances, lethargy, a lack of interest in daily activities, mood fluctuations, negative thoughts and guilt and loss of confidence. If two or more of these symptoms persist for a week or longer, De Behll recommends seeking professional help.

Some useful coping mechanisms include sticking to a routine, engaging in a hobby or pleasurable activity, creating a support system and maintaining regular contact with family members and friends. Share your experiences, suggest mental health experts.

Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.

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