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Taking care of your mental health – Part 5: Exercise and Mental Health

It is widely accepted that members of the veterinary profession are at increased risk of mental health problems, so it’s important to take a proactive approach to managing your wellbeing.

One of the best ways to do this is by exercising on a regular basis. An active lifestyle has long been promoted by health professionals to help maintain physical and mental health, but it is only in recent years that evidence has emerged to support the beneficial effects of exercise for both the prevention and treatment of mental health disorders.

While much of the data relates to the relationship between physical activity and stress or depression, it is thought that the positive effects of exercise are likely to extend to other mental health conditions, such as anxiety.

Of course, you don’t need to be at risk of, or living with, mental illness to benefit from regular exercise. Research has found that active people tend to be more optimistic and have better emotional wellbeing compared to those who are sedentary.

How does it help?

Theories abound as to how exercise helps your mental health. While some remain unproven, it’s been proposed that regular activity:

  • Helps you to sleep better
  • Lifts your mood by helping to balance levels of neurotransmitters, endorphins and stress hormones in your brain
  • Distracts you from negative thoughts and provides an outlet to work through your problems and worries
  • Boosts your energy levels and improves concentration and alertness
  • Offers social interaction and support when done with other people.

How much do you need?

While experts agree regular physical activity can only be good for your mental health, the jury is still out on exactly how much and what type of exercise is best. However, the consensus is that ongoing physical activity throughout your lifetime is what’s needed for your mind to reap the benefits.

Rather than getting hung up on specifics, aim for at least half an hour of activity each day. If you are currently inactive, you can gradually work up to this target over a period of several days or weeks – any activity is better than no activity and you don’t want to risk being put off by going too hard, too soon. If you do have an existing health condition, or it’s been a while since you’ve done anything more active than walk from the front door to the car, it’s always best to check in with your doctor before increasing the amount or intensity of your physical activity.

Keep it regular

“But I’m too tired to exercise” is a common refrain among vets before or after a long day at work, before giving way to a push of the snooze button or an evening on the couch. While it might seem counterintuitive, physical activity can actually boost your energy levels when you’re feeling tired.

The key to overcoming that sluggish feeling lies in setting yourself up to succeed, which means doing everything you can to slot exercise into your daily schedule it eventually becomes a habit – just like brushing your teeth. Some tips for doing this include:

  • Prepare in advance by laying out your exercise and work clothes the night before to save you precious time and energy the following morning.
  • Do something that is easily accessible – you’re more likely to squeeze in a few laps at the pool you drive past on your way home than you are to cross town for a gym class.
  • Organise a regular walk or jog with a friend, sign up for boot camp or join a mixed netball team – you’re less likely to pull out if you know you’ll be letting others down.
  • Incorporate extra physical activity into your daily activities wherever possible – cycle to work rather than drive, park further away from the shops, walk to the post office in your lunch break or stand when writing up histories or making phone calls.
  • If you don’t already have a dog, consider fostering a rescue or offering to walk a neighbour’s dog – nothing is more motivating than the nudge of a wet nose.

In short, the best exercise routine for you is the one you’re most likely to stick to. So choose something that you enjoy and will fit into your lifestyle.

Don’t overdo it

Like anything in life, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. Regular, moderate exercise is beneficial, but excessive training can leave you run down, susceptible to injury and too exhausted to attend to other aspects of your life. An obsessive attitude towards exercise can also be associated with certain mental health conditions, such as eating disorders and bipolar disorder.

Some warning signs of exercising excessively include:

  • Prolonged exercise sessions – above what’s considered a “normal” amount of time
  • Inflexibility around altering your exercise schedule
  • Feeling excessively anxious, stressed, depressed or guilty when you miss an exercise session
  • Continuing to exercise when you’re unwell or injured
  • Prioritising exercise over other responsibilities or obligations, like family and work
  • Obsessing about your appearance or food intake.

If any of these scenarios sound familiar, you might be overdoing it and potentially harming, rather than helping, your mental health. Consider scheduling an appointment with your GP to discuss whether you need to make some adjustments to achieve a more balanced approach to exercise.

Take-home message

Regular exercise is important for maintaining a healthy body and mind, and it needn’t be structured or expensive to be effective – simply walking the dog or throwing a Frisbee around the park helps.

It’s important to acknowledge that exercise is only one of many factors influencing mental health, and some conditions do require additional forms of treatment to be managed effectively. If you feel persistently sad, anxious or stressed, or you’re struggling emotionally, don’t hesitate to seek professional help – your GP is a good starting point.

If this article has raised any concerns, remember help is available:

Lifeline, 13 11 14,
Suicide Call Back Line 1300 659 467
Samaritans Anonymous Crisis Support line, 135247,
Beyond Blue, 1300 22 46 36,
Kids Helpline (aged 5-25), 1800 55 1800,
Mental Health Emergency Response Line (MHERL) 1300 555 788

Last Updated: May 2024

DISCLAIMER: The above information is for guidance purposes only. Vetlink takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information, which is not intended as advice. We recommend you take advice from a suitably qualified professional. Vetlink takes no responsibility for the accuracy of the information and does not endorse any individual or organisation. It is your responsibility to determine the suitability and qualifications of any individual or organisation.