Sport and exercise is deemed to be as therapeutic as medication in addressing mild to moderate levels of anxiety and depression. Going for a run helps metabolise unwanted stress hormones, while waking up the brain and stabilising mood. If you exercise with a friend the “love” neurochemical oxytocin also kicks in and adds to the overall mental well-being. The mental health benefits of engaging in sport and exercise can’t be underestimated, especially men’s health, as it provides a supportive environment that many men find more comfortable that counselling rooms.
To understand the role exercise has in mental well-being one only has to look at the distress many elite athletes feel when they are out injured or after they retire from competitive sport. If these more sedentary periods of the athlete’s life are not carefully managed the consequences can be devastating.
There are many contributing factors in coming to terms with “who am I, if I am not an athlete anymore?” The fact that life is never be as exciting, nor as rewarding as the dopamine rush that comes with competing on the national and international stage. Significant changes in relationships or finances can all be contributing factors, but equally important and less understood is the role of physical movement plays in brain health.
In October 2000 researchers from Duke University (USA) made the “New York Times” with a study that showed that exercise is better than Zoloft at treating depression. Australia’s leading Psychiatrist, Professor Gordon Parker (former Director of the Black Dog Institute), has long written about depression being a “disorder of movement” with exercise being an effective treatment.
Injured athletes need to keep on moving, and athletes at the end of their careers need to retire to exercise and not from it. The athlete mindset responds well to discipline and structure. The hours spent every week engaged in deliberate mindful physical practice is a sort of active meditation that bathes the brain in a range or feel good neurochemicals, normalising mood and enhancing learning.
In addition, moderate levels of aerobic activity fertilises the brain, enhancing the growth of neurons and neurotransmitters that improve mood, moderate impulsivity, anger and anxiety, while cultivating attention, perception, motivation, memory and learning.
When an athlete significantly reduces their training, a sort of withdrawal takes place which may be likened to coming down off recreational drugs. Individuals can be left feeling emotionally depleted and often distressed. Athletes intuitively know this and many have written about in their autobiographies including multiple Olympic swimming champion, Ian Thorpe, who surmised in “This Is Me”,
“…depression is high amongst elite athletes, not just because they get burnt-out, but because many are attracted to sport in the first place as a way of regulating how they feel, because exercise is a great mood stabiliser.”
For tens of thousands of years the human brain has evolved to reward individuals with feel good neurochemicals for being physically active. Human beings are wired to move as a protection against predators, to hunt and gather, and migrate with the seasons. Movement is hard wired into the DNA not just for physical fitness, but for brain health. Exercise contributes to an alert brain and a calm mind both important for survival. It is becoming more important than ever, in an increasingly sedentary world with a technology driven frenetic mind and overstimulated brain.
Exercise can provide a sort of physically active mediation, which helps to turn down the stress tap of life, metabolising negative rumination and melting away anxiety. Being engaged in exercise bathes the brain in helpful mood stabilising neurochemicals such as serotonin and dopamine, while metabolising excessive cortisol. It simply feels good to exercise.
When individuals play as part of a team, athletes get the added protective benefit of oxytocin. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that is produced by the brain and helps form positive relationships. It is at its strongest with a mother and new born child and is part of the evolutionary process for keeping tribes together. A group has a greater chance of survival than a vulnerable and isolated individual. Oxytocin helps build trust, cooperation and support and in doing so helps moderate anxiety and depression. When individuals become isolated from their group they are at greater risk of self-harm, or harm by others. An athlete withdrawing from their social group can be a significant sign of distress and a call for help.
Individuals with low levels of these helpful brain chemicals may unknowingly find themselves attracted to sport in the first instance, because it helps the way they feel. Psychiatrist John Ratey says physical activity is like taking “a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin” at the same time. Exercise wakes up the brain (Ritalin) and calms the mind (Prozac), when oxytocin is added to the equation social support becomes a significant factor in keeping each other safe.
Unconsciously some athletes may be self-medicating hidden mental health issues that are camouflaged through their engagement in sport. When they stop, or significantly reduce their training workloads for any reason, everything starts to unravel. Diminished mental energy stores can leave individuals feeling agitated, anxious and/or depressed. Confused by this loss, some individuals may slip into less helpful ways of self-medicating, AFL player Heath Black shared in “Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete”
“I would have racing thoughts, eat more, buzz around like a fly in a bottle taking on too many tasks but never completing any. My energy levels would be off the charts, I’d become a drama queen, impulsive, tense, paranoid. Sport really calmed me, but when I stopped playing it became out of control.”
Sport and exercise may keep agitation or the “Black Dog” (depression) at bay, unknowingly by bathing the brain in feel good neurochemicals and preventing a predisposition to mental ill-health from presenting until retirement. This is not to say there aren’t other contributing factors both during and post the athletes’ career that can trigger mental-illness, rather it is a reminder that movement is central for brain health for everyone. If individuals don’t remain engage in exercise newly formed neurons wither and waste away, just like an unused muscle.
Human beings need to move, a lack of movement contributes to mental DIS-EASE. Confused, anxious, agitated or depressed athletes may be unconsciously drawn to alcohol and/or other drugs to try and soothe the agitation they now feel, or to lift them out of melancholy. All individuals need to remain engaged in exercise. Athletes who have a predisposition to low levels of helpful brain chemicals to begin with, simply cannot afford to stop moving when injured or at retirement. They must retire to exercise, not from it.
Gayelene Clews is a former World Number One Triathlete, Olympic Psychologist and author of “Wired to Play: The Metacognitive Athlete”, a ground breaking book on athlete mental health. Gayelene has worked with many of the World’s best sporting teams, including six years in the NRL. Gayelene applies science to success in her business and sporting workshops for emotionally intelligent organisations. Contact Gayelene via firstname.lastname@example.org. To purchase her book www.wiredtoplay.com.