By Rachel Welch
Fitness is important, beyond the physical results.
Our bodies thrive when we provide them with proper activity and challenges, and so does our mind! Fitness of body and mind work together to achieve balance and harmony that lead to a healthy lifestyle. This is especially true as we age; the older we get, the more important physical and mental fitness becomes, to ensure the maintenance of our strength. One group in particular, has become a focal point of research into this topic. It seems that middle-aged women may have a uniquely strong correlation between physical fitness, and mental health. The research even goes as far as to suggest that lack of fitness and strength is clearly tied to depression and anxiety in middle-aged women.
The Connection of Fitness and Feelings
Every aspect of our body works together and influences one another. When a person is active, the body releases chemicals that change emotions and feelings. The reverse is also true, that when a person is stationary or inactive for long periods of time, the mind will respond differently.
Research shows that individuals who exercise regularly have better overall mental health than those who do not. The groups of more active individuals are shown to have lower rates of mental illnesses like depression and anxiety, with some studies suggesting that exercise can be as effective as antidepressants for some people (1). But why is this?
The body chemically responds to exercise. When we exercise, certain stress hormones shift and change, and hormones called endorphins are released. Endorphins help us feel happy and calm, and tend to temporarily override the impact of less pleasant hormones like (the stressful) cortisol. Exercise helps us increase our coping abilities, self-esteem, and energy levels. It is also an excellent outlet for mental frustrations and can release physical tension, to help you feel more relaxed (1). Physical exercise boosts our strength, endurance, and our body’s overall chemical responses.
Interestingly, our minds can also influence our body's reactions and responses. This ties into what is known as “the mind-body connection.”
The mind-body connection shows us that a person can use their thoughts to alter certain physical responses, and decrease stress. To test this yourself, try visualizing a time that you felt happy, grateful, or calm. If you focus on this pleasant memory, you might notice that your body begins to exhibit relaxed responses; maybe your heart beat slows down a bit, or you feel your muscles start to release some tension. All of this can come from even the thought of calmness.
The mind-body connection is so powerful that it can also work in negative ways. For instance, recalling a time that you were angry can actually cause your body to react as it did in the actual moment (2). With the potential increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and tension, the recall of negative moments like this has actually been shown to pose a health risk. Anger in general has been shown to increase the risk of heart-related illnesses, whether you react outwardly, or quietly fume.
Anger is another mental state that influences our physicality. When a person is angry, the body reacts by increasing the “fight or flight” response. This leads to a boost in stress hormones (like cortisol and adrenaline). Increased heart rate, soaring blood pressure, and constriction of blood vessels causes an intense strain on the body in a moment of anger. Now, if you are past the present angry moment, but recall that moment, according to the mind-body connection theory, you might have a redo of that physically draining experience (3). Even to the point of increasing one’s risk of having a heart attack or stroke by nearly 30% (4)! If that’s not motivation to forgive and forget, I don’t know what is.
This is all to show that our mind and body work together and maintain a strong influence over one another. Therefore, it is important to prioritize the health of each one.
Mental Illness and Physical Fitness with Age
There are multiple trends seen between mental health, fitness, and various demographics, but for our purposes, we will discuss what the research shows us about middle-aged women in the age range of 40-65.
Looking at mental health, it seems that women experience an increase of challenges as they reach middle-age, partly due to our society’s expectations, tradition, or self-imposed expectations, Some examples of these extra challenges include menopause (a category of problems all on its own), infertility, and the resulting impact of hindered self-esteem, and self-identity. Add to that the stressors of retirement, empty nest syndrome, and changes in appearance (which society programs women to feel bad about), and you have a whole slew of mental health challenges that middle-aged women have to overcome.
Findings of a study in India showed that 54% of women in their study reported moderate stress, moderate depression, and social dysfunction. This led to the findings of a 38.7% prevalence of depression in middle-aged women within their studied group. The researchers for this particular study found that overall, “Barriers to middle-aged women’s mental health fell into two main themes including ‘increased life concerns’ and ‘physical and psychological tensions’. The two subcategories of the first theme included having mental concerns and increased burden of roles. The second main theme also consisted of two categories including perceived undesirable physical changes and perceived undesirable psychological changes.” (5)
So, considering the multitude of challenges a middle-aged woman faces with her mental health, we will explore the impact that strength and fitness can have.
Fitness, Strength, and Middle Aged Challenges
Another not-so-fun gift that accompanies middle age for women, is a decrease in exercise habits. When a woman reaches middle age, exercise often gets put on the back burner. Multiple studies have shown that middle-aged women (ages 40-65) tend to drastically decrease their levels of exercise. The reason for this seems to vary per person, but it is suggested that the post-menopausal phase and related lifestyle changes lead to a more sedentary lifestyle, and an increased body mass. Whatever the reason, it is concerning that a woman’s middle-aged years are often made more difficult by a lack of exercise.
For everyone, but this population in particular, it has been shown that with lower physical activity, a person is more likely to experience mental illness. This has been put to the test and proven to be true in numerous studies. One such study focused on a group of 2294 female patients who demonstrated depressive symptoms. The data from these subjects came from various articles which the researchers combed through. With the use of depression-scale surveys, participants were asked to evaluate their symptoms of depression while either being part of the control group (where they made no changes to exercise habits), or were part of the exercising group. This group included women with various other health factors, such as pregnancy, menopause, or disease.
They found that women who engaged in aerobic exercise, regardless of other health concerns, demonstrated a decrease in reported depression symptoms. This led to their conclusion that exercise is an effective treatment of and intervention for depression (6).
The great news is that research also shows us that even if someone was never active in their youth, if they adopt an active lifestyle starting in their middle-age, they still reap the full benefits! Studies have shown that everyone of all ages will benefit from becoming more active. Even if you begin a new, active lifestyle in middle-age, it can extend your longevity and quality of life (7). At the end of the day, age is just a number. Anyone of any age, at any time can take their health to new heights! It is never too late to start again on a goal, even if it’s later in life or the millionth re-start.
Strength and Fitness: It’s Never Too Late!
I hope that you can revel in the fact that this is as wonderful a time as any to embark on a new fitness journey! The science shows that it is truly never too late to reap the benefits and “gains” of an active lifestyle. So, how can you get started, how much do you need, and what on earth should you do to be more active?
Regarding how much exercise is enough, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends the following:
Types of Exercise:
When considering what form of exercise to do, first of all, consider what you find to be enjoyable. Exercise can and should be fun! Do you enjoy being outside in the fresh air, or are you more fond of air-conditioning? Do you like the idea of power and intensity, or calm, grounding movement? Do you like groups, or are you more into introverted exercise?
Once you evaluate your interests, you can open your mind to the multiple ways that you can alter exercise to suit them! Then, you can build a healthy regimen that you will not only benefit from, but also love doing.
If you need climate-control, then you might benefit from some of these indoor exercise examples!
Yoga: Yoga is an excellent exercise to do indoors, and is suitable for all levels (seriously! There are yoga programs for babies to elders, and everything in between).
If you are new to yoga, and don’t want to commit to a membership or purchase, try out some content on Youtube! It’s free, there is zero risk of embarrassing yourself (because you’re alone in your room at home), and no one’s feelings are hurt if you leave a class early.
For a starting point, check out this link, with one of my personal favorite Youtube instructors.
Aerobic Workout Videos:
Once again, I’m going to mention the powerful accessibility of Youtube. There are so many options for styles of workouts that are free, and totally available to you in your home! Explore, and have fun trying different things!
For the lovers of fresh air, you have many options. Cycling, sports, walking, running, hiking, and even roller blading are all excellent forms of exercise, to name a few.
For our lovely readers of any age, but particularly our middle-aged women, I hope you feel empowered to take your health into your own, capable hands! Through the power of physical activity, in whichever variety, you can boost the strength and fitness of your body and your mind. Stay active, and be well!
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