The dark winter nights and the aftermath of the festive season and New Year celebrations in a January and February that often seem to drag on and on, can leave people feeling low.

Mostly this is just a short, temporary thing, but occasionally it signifies a deeper, underlying problem.

The stigma of mental illness

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Mental health and depression often has a bad rap, with sufferers stigmatised and labelled by society. Someone labelled as mentally ill is seen as damaged, unstable, moody and unpredictable.

At worst they are seen as unemployable and sometimes even dangerous. But this is both wrong and unfair. Mental health is no different from any other form of health.

Mental illness is no different to any other form of illness

When it comes to health, if everything is okay, then you tend to take it for granted. If things go wrong, then you need to address the problem. If you catch a common cold, you take medicine or herbal relief.

If you get a clogged artery, you have surgery. If your brain has an illness that causes you to be depressed, then this is something that needs treatment. And like physical illnesses, mental illness has grades of seriousness.

These can range from suicidal tendencies to panic attacks. What is important is to recognise the symptoms early and treat them as effectively as possible before they escalate.

Does exercise help depression?

This article is by no means an essay on the causes and cures of mental health. That is the work of the specific health professionals in that field.

But I am hoping to draw some attention to the subject and all I am advocating here is the role of physical activity in the alleviation of some of the stresses that lead to mental health problems. I’m saying that in some cases you can use exercise to combat depression.

Giving back control

The first thing that exercise does for you is give you an element of control in your life. Many people who suffer anxiety, do so because they feel they have lost control.

This might be due to financial problems, marital difficulties, self-image or a host of other reasons. By starting an exercise programme, you are taking a positive step to improving an significant element of your life and that is a powerful thing.

The social element

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By getting involved in sport and activity, someone suffering mental health issues is also addressing another common symptom – withdrawal from society.

By joining a gym or getting involved in an activity, you are immediately putting yourself in a new social context. Again, this is a powerful tool against depression because it is shifting the focus from you and your issues. It is also giving you a break from negative thinking.

Regularity will help exercise combat depression

Regular classes, meeting others for an activity and building a visit to the gym into your daily schedule gives you a routine. This is an important thing for someone suffering from depression.

As well as taking control of your life, you are also getting order into a life that may well have veered into the chaotic in other areas.

Living a healthy life

A fourth and very important impact of regular exercise is the health benefit you will gain. If you are exercising regularly, burning calories and toning muscles, then you will start to feel fitter.

This will have a knock-on effect on your general lifestyle. People suffering depression often turn to destructive options of alcohol, drugs or binge eating as an immediate fix for the way they are feeling.

If you are getting fitter, the chances are that you will start to kick the unhealthy habits. A trip to the gym on the way home means that you are less likely to go straight for the wine when you walk in the door – fruit juice might feel like the more natural choice.

If you have just completed a tough exercise class you are unlikely to want to stuff a pizza down, you are more likely to eat a healthy meal.

I am not saying here that exercise is a great panacea for all mental illness, but it is one tool in the fight against depression that should not be overlooked.

Apart from anything else, the release of hormones such as serotonin and endorphins have been proven to make you feel happier. So can exercise combat depression? Yes, and isn’t that is a good reason to get your running shoes on during these remaining Winter weeks?

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