Feel good fitness

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Fitness expert Craig Wise explains the link between exercise and mental wellness.

Whoever said “exercise is the most underutilised antidepressant” and “Warning! Exercise has been known to cause happiness!” was bang on the money. There is truth in both those sayings because being physically active is good for the mind, as well as the body. 

We all know about the need to keep our bodies on the go for the physical benefits but the plus side of being physically active runs much deeper. Exercise has been shown to be an effective weapon in the fight against a number of mental health issues with research showing positive consequences in cases of depression and anxiety. But it isn’t just those plagued with these conditions who can reap the benefits of being active.

I have always been an active person and weight has never been an issue but in July last year I was contacted by a prospective client who made me think deeply about this. Her question to me was: “What do you know about being out of shape and then trying to get fit?” I pondered this for a while and made a decision to experiment on myself. As I write this article, it is the final day of four months without any physical activity other than day-to- day things like playing with my children, or doing the housework.

Has this experiment changed my physical body? Yes, it has. Has this four-month period changed my mental state? Most definitely. I can honestly, hand on heart, say that over the last few months the little things, that previously I would have let slide, have stressed me, my memory – already fading with age – has been missing in action, a good night’s sleep has become a thing of the past, and my overall mood has been darker and grumpier (as I am sure that my wife and girls will attest to). 

One of the greatest areas in which physical activity can play a role in improving a mental state is with self-esteem. Self-esteem is how we feel about ourselves and how we perceive our self-worth. It is a key indicator of our mental wellbeing and our ability to cope with the curve balls which life throws our way. Whereas the results of studies on depression have shown varying results across ages and the sexes, physical activity has been shown to have a positive impact on our self-worth. This relationship has been found across all ages – from children through to those with a few more years’ experience under their belts – and in both men and women. 

If you are having feelings of low self-esteem, anxiety or depression  then exercise is probably one of the last things you feel like doing but even a little activity can make a difference. 

Physiologically we get the boost from the endorphins (the feelgood chemicals) released by our brain which enhance our sense of well-being. But this is not the only way which we gain from activity. There are a number of other ways in which physical activity can help our mental state. 

When we are physically active our mind is taken away from our worries so we find ourselves removed from a cycle of negative thinking patterns which feed the anxieties which we may be feeling. 

Emotionally we can find ourselves feeling more confident especially if we are achieving exercise goals or small challenges. Of course, the activity we are doing may also help to get us into a better shape which gives us confidence through liking our own appearance. 

The social interaction which can come with physical activity can also help – just a friendly hello or smile as we take a morning or evening walk around the local area is enough to boost our mood. If the activity is something even more social, such as a team sport, then the benefits are even greater. 

Often with mental illness there is a feeling of lack of control, and exercise gives us an area of our lives that we can take control of and use as a stepping stone to move forward. 

As a coping mechanism for mental illness, exercise obviously has greater benefits than some other alternatives, such as alcohol, smoking or drug use, that all come with their inherent dangers and can often lead to worsening symptoms. 

So what activities are best to help increase our mental wellness? Well, this is where the news is good – research has shown that no one exercise or activity is better than another, so you can enjoy the activity you love and get the same great benefits, just don’t overdo it.

 As ever moderate physical activity is better than any gruelling routine (and there are dangers to obsessive exercise too – yes, it is addictive). When you finish your activity, you should feel pleasantly tired. If you are dragging yourself on your hands and knees to the couch, you might want to pull back a little. 

And as I finish typing this article, I am looking forward to getting active again after a four-month hiatus – for both my physical and mental health.


Walking. The simplest, most accessible and most affordable exercise of all, plus you get to enjoy New Zealand’s wonderful nature. Try a walking group for a social boost. 

Yoga. Great for mind, body and soul and with a wealth of different kinds of yoga on offer – from gentle stretching to full-on cardio workouts – there’s a class to suit everyone. 

Swimming. Another low-impact, non-weight bearing option. Try to find an outdoor pool during the summer for an added sunshine and fresh air mood boost. 

High intensity training. You don’t need to do hours of exercise to reap the mental health rewards. Try short bursts of exercise – run a short distance, do some squats or push ups, and see how it makes you feel. 


Cycling. Try a spin class at your gym or buy a push bike (or an e-bike) and cycle to work a couple of days a week. It’s a great way to prepare mentally for work or de-stress after a long day. 

Dancing. Crank up the music and dance with your kids – who cares about mum or dad dancing in the privacy of your own home? Or join a class and learn salsa or ballroom dancing in the company of other beginners. 

*A version of this story first appeared in Diabetes Wellness magazine, Autumn 2018 and is reproduced with permission. Subscribe to Diabetes NZ today to receive your copy.



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Jo Chapman