Strong mind, strong body, the power of exercise in men’s mental wellness

Published Jun 13, 2024


As South Africa observes Men's Health Month, the conversation extends beyond physical health to include the often-overlooked aspect of mental well-being.

Amidst the hustle and bustle of daily life, exercise emerges as a powerful tool for men to enhance their mental health and overall quality of life.

Research consistently demonstrates the positive impact of exercise on mental well-being. Engaging in physical activity releases endorphins, often referred to as "feel-good hormones," which can alleviate stress, anxiety and depression.

Moreover, regular exercise promotes better sleep, boosts self-esteem and enhances cognitive function, contributing to a healthier mindset.

For men facing mental health challenges, incorporating exercise into their routine can be a game-changer. Whether it's hitting the gym, going for a run, practising yoga or playing sports, there are countless ways to reap the mental health benefits of physical activity.

Dr James Burger of the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) offers valuable advice: rather than just observing others in peak physical condition, consider using physical activity as a potent tool for managing mental health.

While not everyone needs to tackle marathons, incorporating some form of physical activity into daily routines can significantly benefit mental health.

Exercising releases happy hormones. Picture: RUN 4 FFWPU/Pexels

Whether it's brisk walking or engaging in gentle exercises, the impact can be profound, particularly for individuals grappling with conditions like depression, anxiety, dementia, ADHD, and more, explained Burger.

In South Africa, where one in four individuals experience depression and mental health conditions rank as the leading cause of disability, seeking and receiving treatment remains a challenge, with only a quarter of those affected accessing care.

These conditions not only diminish the quality of life but also hinder daily functioning, impacting relationships, home life and work.

Given the high prevalence of depression and other mental health conditions in South Africa, coupled with barriers such as stigma and limited access to mental healthcare, exercise emerges as a promising, affordable, and accessible strategy.

Burger highlights exercise as a "protective factor" capable of significantly enhancing the nation's mental health, overall well-being and functional capacity.

“In mild cases of depression, exercise is an effective first-line treatment and in more severe cases, boosts the effect of medication. Evidence continues to show that adding exercise is better than no treatment, and has positive effects combined with anti-depressants in reducing depressive symptoms and thoughts of suicide,” said Dr Burger.

Exercise isn't just about physical fitness; it's also a powerful tool for sharpening thinking and memory.

Beyond lifting moods and reducing anxiety, physical activity offers significant cognitive benefits, including protection against dementia and improved attention functions, according to guidelines from the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP).

Moreover, exercise has profound psychosocial effects, distracting from negative thoughts and fostering positive feelings of well-being and self-image.

It provides a sense of challenge, autonomy, and accomplishment, contributing to social connectedness and a sense of belonging.

Burger's practical tips for getting started and staying motivated

"Find an activity you enjoy and can sustain," he advises. "Remember, any movement is better than none, and don't strive for perfection—just aim for consistency."

Permit yourself to set aside time for exercise.

Focus on the positive impacts on your mental state, which are more immediate, rather than expecting quick results in physical fitness.

Focus on your own self-discovery and social relationships gained through exercise, rather than prioritising performance and competition.

Go outdoors and have a social aspect to a physical activity, and a repeatable activity, as this is especially beneficial for a positive mood, enjoyment and a sense of achievement.

Try Group activities and supervision, such as a team sport or exercise/movement group class, can help to keep you motivated, involved and connected to other people

Walking for 10 minutes a day and building from there is a good start at least.

Use the stairs instead of the lift.

Do lunges by stepping forward with one foot, bending both knees to lower your body until your back knee nearly touches the ground. Alternate legs and repeat for 10-12 reps per leg.

Put on your favourite music and let loose with some dancing. Move freely to the rhythm, allowing your body to express itself without judgement.

Follow along with home workout videos or apps that offer guided exercise routines tailored to your fitness level and preferences.

Choose workouts that combine cardiovascular, strength, and flexibility exercises for a well-rounded workout.