Anyone who exercises will be able to tell you about the positive rush of emotion they feel both during and after. Summoning the motivation to workout in the first place, to go for a run, or take a swim in the ocean can be an arduous task, but after tackling it head on, the feeling you get afterwards is one of pure joy, empowerment and invigoration.
Many of us aware of the chemical reactions that occur in our brain as the result of exercise, but for those a little out of the loop, the Dana Foundation explains it perfectly:
“When you exercise, your body releases chemicals such as dopamine and endorphins, which make you feel happy. Not only is your brain dumping out feel-good chemicals, but exercise also helps your brain get rid of chemicals that make you feel stressed and anxious.”
“People who exercise tend to be happier and less stressed compared to those who don’t, and regular exercise can also help you control your emotions when you do feel angry or upset.”
On that note: Stephanie Regan, a clinical psychotherapist, trauma and relationship specialist recently told Metro that movement, mood and memory are all linked – yet another reason why many people may be experiencing brain fog, or reduced productivity, in lockdown.
“Because being physically active has a direct impact on memory, decreased activity throughout the pandemic has played a part in the way different memories have changed,” she told Metro.
“We know that memories that are emotionally charged tend to be remembered better and so, outside of the pandemic, much of what was occurring was emotionally charged and people could remember these things. But as the pandemic continued, memories blurred and days did, too.”
Pretty compelling evidence then, to strap on a pair of running shoes and keep yourself active, fit and healthy. But while the biological link between physical stimulation and brain activity has been recorded and can be explained, what is to be said of the psychological benefits of being active? These experiences and reactions are likely to be subjective and will likely be moulded or dictated by the particular sport one participates in.
You may find a positive team performance gives you a far more positive mindset at home in the days following your victory, which would be the result of more than just a dopamine release.
To gain a greater insight into this link between activity and brain stimulation, DMARGE spoke exclusively to Damien Fitzpatrick, former NSW Waratah player and the founder of PILLAR Performance, to find out how physical stimulation affected his brain activity both during his playing days and now that he is in retirement.
Damien relates that his “life was geared towards physical activity from an early age.”
“As a kid, we were always outdoors, on a field, in a pool or at the beach. It was something my parents encouraged and supported. I was lucky enough to earn a contract with the NSW Waratahs straight out of high school which was a huge learning curve when it comes to physical training, nutrition and managing your body.”
“Coming into that environment and living out my dream of playing professionally taught me lots of valuable lessons. I began to connect the way that training would impact my mood overall, given I was being introduced to new levels of intensity and consistency I hadn’t experienced before.”
“Unfortunately, I was better known for being injured than my exploits on the field which any athlete will tell you is extremely frustrating.”
“It was these periods of adversity that taught me the affects physical activity could have on my state of mind.”
“During my first two ACLs – being sidelined and on crutches for several months I found it hard to concentrate at university which I was still completing.”
“During this time in my career when I had the most ‘free’ time, turned out to be the hardest for me to concentrate. I later learnt that I am far more productive after completing something physical – regardless of the intensity.”
Indeed, Damien expands on how he felt during his injured periods, claiming his biggest mental struggles came “when I’ve not been physically active.”
“I tore my ACL three times before a defect in my left knee was eventually uncovered. I’d eventually undergo a complete tibial osteotomy – a brutal procedure with a long recovery.”
“Any athlete who is out injured can tell you how frustrating that is, in my early days I missed pretty much three years of rugby – countless weeks and months in rehab watching my teammates out on the field desperately wishing I was there.”
“It’s a pretty lonely place, even with the outlet of rehab training, which progressively intensifies as injuries progress. To come down from being so physically active to a lower level can take effect mentally, which is why I periodically reduced the amount of exercise I ‘needed’ immediately after my retirement.”
“My mind and body both still required a high level of physical exertion for quite some time.”
Now finding himself in retirement, Damien is still committed to keeping as active as possible, for the mental benefits it brings.
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“Now in retirement, I’ve still got the bug when it comes to being active. I ocean swim every morning – my knee is still a limiting factor to other activities – but regardless, I love swimming and choose this as the way to start my day as it equally gives me time to gather my thoughts in the water.”
“My body and mind are now in a place that is comfortable from exercising in the morning to a moderate level, but the importance of it in my routine I feel is now even greater.”
“There are so many days that I wake up and immediately feel stressed with the weight of the days before or what lay ahead with my business. I enter the water and immediately feel that weight life and by the time I am finished I feel prepared, relaxed and energised to attack the challenges of that day.”
Former AFL star Tom Derickx is another to advocate the importance of routine, previously telling DMARGE, “I’m still learning, but I’m interested in [meditation], but I just try to get up at the same time every morning, I do two 20 minutes of meditation a day, one in the morning and one in the arvo.”
“Then I’ll just do something active, whether it’s a run or a stretch, and I make sure I jump in the ocean, just to get the body moving. I try to not look at my phone until I’ve done all that stuff. I think that’s a tough habit to get out of, but I think it’s an important one.”
“It’s all about creating a habit so it becomes second nature and once you stop, you really notice it.”
Yet more evidence that physical activity can be damn beneficial for your mental health.