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Exercise & Emotional Health

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Running For Happiness – by Dr Chris Madden, GP


“…..advantageous in treating and preventing conditions such as major depression and anxiety.”
As a GP I am passionate about the virtues of exercise and promoting it to my patients.


I thrive on the challenge of encouraging people to realise the goal of a healthier mind and body. I confess to often sounding like a broken record in my consultations.

My clinical learning and experience has taught me about the physical benefits of regular activity, such as preventing obesity, heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes. However, I wish to focus on the almost instantaneous benefits of regular exercise for one’s emotional health; evidence has started gathering as to how activity is advantageous in treating and preventing conditions such as major depression and anxiety.


“…better energy levels, motivation and resilience…”


I feel that I am a good case study. I am a busy health professional with human frailties in that I possess a sensitive overactive mind, resulting in a perpetual battle switching off and achieving restful sleep.


I began running about a decade ago, having little faith in my abilities and been quite reticent to the idea of running. But it seemed like a convenient means to get physically healthier, thus placating my nagging concern of falling victim to my concerning family history of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Whilst I have remained a slow-paced runner, I gradually increased the distance, and strictly adhered to a 5km run twice a week, one of which became the Lillydale Lake Parkrun event. I have even entered a completed a few 10km and half marathon events.

Myself after the 16km ‘run for the kids’  in 2016


I have savoured the challenges running gives me, the sense of mastery and achievement and the subtle brief feeling of euphoria that I can only presume is the well-publicised consequence of a sudden release of endogenous endorphins and endocannabinoids into one’s circulation.


What I had not recognised was the hidden long term mental health gains that regular exercise has given me. Hindsight has taught me that running has had an extremely positive influence on my moral fortitude and subjective feelings of wellbeing, reframing and reducing my professional and personal self-doubt as well as giving me the luxury of improved sleep. The consequences have been better energy levels, motivation and resilience, boosting my interpersonal relationships, preventing burn out and simply improving my overall enjoyment of life. Further anecdotal evidence of this health benefit is the fact that I become acutely aware of my emotions and sleep declining when I have neglected to conform with my exercise regime. My reward therefore for being so strict on myself is sustaining myself in a hectic life.

“…exercise is as effective as psychotherapy and antidepressant medication…”


Thankfully scientific research has now reinforced my beliefs. Over 70 well-structured clinical trials provide evidence that regular exercise is as effective as psychotherapy and antidepressant medication for mild to moderate depression, making it a valid management option that Doctors are being encouraged to suggest. Similar results seem to be emerging for the management of anxiety as well.

Furthermore, trials have shown that people who exercise regularly show fewer symptoms of depression in comparison to those that do not, demonstrating the essential part exercise plays in preventing emotional health problems.



“……remodels the human brain…”


There are a good number of factors that contribute towards improved emotional health brought on by physical activity. As well as receiving the natural high and reward of endorphin hormones, there is an emerging theory that regular exercise remodels the human brain to improve one’s thoughts, emotions and behaviours. Activity provides a good mental distraction and a ‘mindful’ state in which people can experience a release from the ruminations and worries of the mind, by doing so often reframing problems thus making life more manageable. By setting a regular regime of exertion people are countering the cycle of decline of inertia and apathy that characterises major depression. Activities usually involve leaving the confines of one’s home and social involvement, an antidote to social anxiety disorders.

So how much exercise is good for you? The RACGP and other such authorities suggest 18-64 year olds should aspire to about 30 minutes (continuous or intermittent) of moderate intensity activity on most days which can come in many different forms, eg running, cycling, swimming, fast pace walking, gym workout, gardening, walking upstairs etc. The benefits only occur if you adhere to this regime.


If regular exercise is already part of your life then kudos to you, keep up the routine and spread the word. But what about the 65% of Australians who, according to the heart foundation, are sedentary or have a low level of exercise.


Many would argue that this lifestyle advice is all well and good, but how is it possible for an inactive person who is feeling flat, unmotivated, stressed or is simply too busy to commit to a routine involving daily activity? This is a great challenge but not impossible, and achieving such goals can be achieved with some external assistance:

– Slowly build up activity and fitness to ensure it is realistic, achievable and does not cause you damage. Once you have done a little then hopefully the feel good rewards enable you to persist with a routine.

– Find an activity you actually enjoy to sustain this routine. Research has shown that previously sedentary people are more likely to adhere to ‘green’ activities such as bush walking or light jogging rather than gym workouts. They are free as well.

– Multidisciplinary clinical team – a combination of advice from a GP, exercise physiologist, physiotherapist and psychologist can assist and advise on a slow introduction of exercise. If you live in the Emerald vicinity feel free to book in at Emerald Medical Centre to discuss your needs with one of our friendly GPS or nurses. We have some excellent local allied healthcare professionals to recommend as well or visit https://www.emeraldmed.com.au

– Resources such as the black dog institute or the ‘couch to 5km’ app have some excellent resources in setting goals and sticking to them. https://www.blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/default-source/psychological-toolkit/13-goalsetting-(with-gp-notes).pdf?sfvrsn=2


– Involvement in running events such as the weekly parkrun initiative which is a free 5km run/walk in multiple locations across Australia (& worldwide) on Saturday mornings. https://www.parkrun.com.au

– Signing up to and training for running events such as the CJD Fun Run, Melbourne Marathon Festival (including 5km, 10km, 21km and full 42km events), Run For the Kids.



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