Exercise is medicine


If exercise were a pill, it would be the most widely presribed and sought after prescription in the world. Accessible to all, with countless benefits and minimal side effects, we’d be rushing to get our repeat prescription. Its association with our long term physical health is well-documented. However too many of us only tune into this when we fall ill or go for a health ‘MOT’ . Exercise then becomes a necessity, an obligation, perhaps even something we resent but feel we have no control over.

Whilst you may be experiencing physical symptoms when you seek medical advice, take a moment to consider what actually triggers you to seek that help. It’s impact on your mental state is likely to be a considerable factor. You are in pain or discomfort and may be unable to perform certain activities, which this results in you being unhappy, frustrated and feeling inhibited. Your first resort isn’t exercise though…

 Or is it?

If your answer is yes, this is reassuring that more of us are beginning to recognise the benefits of exercise for our overall wellbeing and not just our physical health.

If not, consider Stephen, a 38-year old father of one who runs his own business in central London. On Monday, Stephen chose to avoid doing any exercise, worked late hunched over his desk, becoming agitated and feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of an upcoming meeting in which he’d be pitching a business idea to potential investors. Feeling vulnerable, he ordered a takeaway to the office and sat overanalysing the work he needed to get done. When finally home he was irritable and snapped at his wife. He remained distracted by work well into the night and in bed, and lower back pain and a persistent headache stopped him sleeping.

Monday evening had left Stephen feeling very low and uptight and Tuesday was threatening to be much the same. On this day though, Stephen made one conscious decision to make one small change to his day. He left work at 5pm and walked home – a 30 minute brisk walk along the local canal – avoiding the rush hour Central Line tube. Stephen was home by 5:30pm, far earlier than his usual commute would get him there. He had chosen to embrace exercise and as a result he felt energized. He had taken the time to be mindful, absorbing and appreciating his surroundings and was able to breathe and think rationally about his pitch presentation. He arrived home more aware and alert to things he had not noticed the night before. He felt in control and relaxed enough to enjoy his supper. His lower back discomfort had eased and he slept uninterrupted through the night.

Now I’m not claiming that short walks cure back pain or magically heal relationships, but please don’t underestimate the power of exercise. Even in the very short term, physical exercise can transform your mental state and in the long term it can change your temperament and the personality you project to others.

We never regret doing exercise well. Think about the last time you made that conscious decision to get up and embrace some form of exercise. Perhaps it was actually quite tough, you worked hard and you challenged yourself, but the sense of achievement afterward that followed left you feeling virtuous.

Next time you find yourself contemplating an exercise session, think of one non-physical reason why you’re going to do it. Something mental or emotional or social, not ‘I need to lose weight’ or ‘I need to get my steps up’.  It could be a chance to catch up with a friend or it may just be that you want to clear your head and feel a little more relaxed. But find that reason. Remind yourself; you’re doing it because of how good it will make you feel today, which can ultimately influence how you feel for life.