a quick fix to perk up mental health

Exercise - a quick fix to perk up mental health

The classic New Year’s resolutions we hear every January, include things like losing weight; eating healthier, earning more money, having a big house, new car, and many things which make us look and feel good. And while these are great goals, there are plenty of other ways to improve your wellbeing in 2023. This new year, commit to improving your mental health through exercise. Research shows that people who exercise regularly have better mental health and emotional wellbeing. They feel more energetic throughout the day, sleep better at night, have sharper memories, and feel more relaxed and positive about themselves and their lives. Taking up exercise seems to reduce the risk of developing mental illness. It also seems to help in treating some mental health conditions, like depression and anxiety. For example, in case of mild-moderate depression, research suggests physical activity can be as effective as antidepressants or psychological treatments like cognitive behavioural therapy.

Work out – for a better you…

However, going to the gym and exercise can be a daunting task when it comes to managing job, home, and of course mental health at the same time. ‘A healthy body makes a healthy mind’ is an old quote but I was unaware how perfectly it can align, until I started tracking my fitness routines. The million dollar question is – how everything can be managed at the same time every day? And how to motivate yourself to be in a healthy relationship with your mind – when stressed with a weekly work routine? Many people plan to go to restaurants on weekends and spend time with families which is a healthy way to relieve stress but think of fueling the body with different workout routines. When we think of working out, a lot of things come in our mind such as aerobic or cardio activities, strength training, and stretches. All these exercises work from moderate to advance levels.

Naidah with fitness trainer, Maryam
Naidah with fitness trainer, Maryam

Aerobic or cardio activities make your heart beat faster and make you breathe harder too. Such as brisk walking, bike riding, running, and swimming. On the other hand, strength training exercises make your muscles work against or resist something. Some examples are lifting weights or doing pushups. Stretches make you more flexible and let you move your muscles through a full range of motion.

Research has shown that it is necessary to do all four types of exercises – strength, endurance, balance, and flexibility. Each one has different benefits, and somehow all can prepare you to do the other one better. And variety is essential too. So, those people who think that working out can be tedious, the answer is NO…. because every type of workout has sub-workouts, and one can never get bored of these. The result can be seen with consistency and continuous efforts in the shape of a toned body and better mental health.

Improved mental health with physical activity:

Being in a good mental health can keep you physically fit and vice versa. These are inter-connected with each other. Your physical wellbeing also influences your mental health. Studies show that exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressant medication – but without the side effects, of course. For example, a recent study by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that running for 15 minutes a day or walking for an hour reduces the risk of major depression by 26 per cent.

Exercise is a natural and effective anti-anxiety treatment. Try thinking about when your feet hit the ground while exercising and the rhythm of breathing, feeling of the wind on the skin is also part of mindfulness. Poor mental health can lead to poor physical health and harmful behaviours such as chronic illness, depression, diabetes and many others. Exercising is best for breaking the cycle of stress. One way of having a healthy mind is staying physically active, but the question is how to initiate it.

There are few numbers of educated female fitness trainers in Pakistan, but luckily while conducting different surveys with fitness coaches in Lahore, I got hold of Maryam Shahbaz, one of the best female fitness trainers in Lahore. I asked her about the best exercise for staying fit and at the same time a quick fix to our mental health. She explained very comprehensively that there is no certain exercise which fixes your mental health but all – whether it’s swimming, running, stretching or any type of training. She also mentioned that every exercise needs consistency. Maryam told a success story where she trained a client with menopause and how after different exercises, the client got rid of her hormonal imbalance as well as the anxiety she was going through due to menopause. “Being consistent with exercise can transform your appearance and physical and mental health beyond the doubt,” said Maryam, who is also a NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine) certificate holder.

Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and mental health:

Usman, boxing trainer
Usman, boxing trainer

Boxing, Jiu Jitsu, and Kickboxing are a few of the disciplines composing the Mixed Martial Arts. MMA enhances focus; boosts confidence; improves cardiovascular health; reduces stress; tones body – all wrapped into a neat package of activity. Usman Zulfiquar Khan, a Kinesiologist by education and a former boxing champion from Chicago, runs his own MMA Gym in Lahore. He emphasised the capacity to hone your emotional landscape through combat sports, to unleash a safe level of aggression to be channeled on the mats, in the ring, or in the cage. “The continuous movement stimulate your brain cells. In MMA, one probably would not feel an instant relief from depression but slowly and gradually, it will undoubtedly change the behavior,” elucidated Usman.

“In Pakistan, there are biases and stereotypes regarding female sports participation specifically in combat sports. There are many stigmas relating to women not being able to take part, supposing women to be fragile, and presuming it to be a gender-specific enterprise. Albeit, women are just as capable, and many find Martial Arts to be an engaging way to stay active and healthy,” observed Usman. “Pakistan has been on a consistent rise when it comes to MMA and whereby there was a woman only MMA event, held recently in Lahore at Gadhafi Stadium Lahore, which showed that women are no less than men in any field,” he added.

Strength Training, a missing piece in women’s fitness:

Muzammil, strength training coach
Muzammil, strength training coach

Upon asking some females about how physically fit they want to see themselves; they pointed out some lean Instagram models as their role models. In Pakistan, there is a certain mindset where women just want to look good ignoring the strength factor. Imagine getting lean and strong at the same time how enthralling that can be. Strength training has a lot of benefits such as strengthening the bones, increasing energy level, improving your brain health, maintaining muscle tissues and, above all improving your mood. Strength training may enhance your quality of life and improve your ability to do everyday activities. Strength training can also protect your joints from injury. While talking to one of the best strength training/power lifting coaches in Lahore, Muzammil Tariq, I unveiled plenty of truths about strength training such as, it’s a combination of different exercises and the only difference is the programming. “Women who link house chores with strength training need to understand that these are two different things. House chores do not have the same intensity of exercise as they do in the gym,” stressed Muzammil. He also debunks the baseless myths about strength training such as it makes you bulky, it makes you less flexible, you must buy expensive training equipment to start strength training, and it’s not for a certain person. He considers all these points baseless and as stereotypes. “Anyone can do strength training, but the program can be modified. Strength training goes a long way in terms of supporting bone health, making aerobic exercise more productive, preventing injury, and facilitating healthy aging,” he explained.

Exercise - a quick fix to perk up mental health

Breaking the stereotypes of heavy lifting:

Recently, I attended a weightlifting competition, ‘OK Power Meet’ which is Pakistan’s biggest powerlifting competition, and to my surprise, many women competed in the event and won by lifting as heavy weights. It’s heartening to know that many women lifters who participated in the competition were from all walks of life – some were housewives, some were students, some were working women etc. This shows that Pakistan is breaking the stereotypes when it comes to women weightlifting. “I think all women should be unapologetic when it comes to taking care of their health and fitness. Age is not a bar as far as strength training is concerned. Women can do all type of exercises at any age I am physically and mentally fit and strength training helped me a lot in this regard,” shared Tahira, one of the eldest female weightlifters who came all the way from Karachi to participate in this interesting competition.

Exercise - a quick fix to perk up mental health

Let’s pledge…

According to stats, mental health issues can be seen more in females than males, and students who spend more time in academics rather than any physical activity are more prone to get anxiety and depression. According to a study in 2019, around 90 per cent of women do not participate in sports and physical activities in Pakistan. When women do not participate in any healthy or physical healthy activity, they are bound to be surrounded by different sorts of mental health issues. To overcome mental health issues, we need to focus on being healthy by taking some time out for ourselves. Time management for working people and students to start their workout routine is a must. Let’s take an oath to start 2023 with a promise to keep our bodies healthy to have healthy minds. It is evident from the studies that Pakistan is moving towards progression in the fitness industry but let’s take it further this coming year. Let’s remove the stigma of mental health issues through possible and healthy ways.

-Naidah Aqeel, Mphil Public Policy, writes about social issues and public health.

She can be reached at [email protected] and @@i_naidah

NASM Certified Trainer, Maryam Shehbaz, can be reached at @thesquatjunkie