The prevalence of mental illness among Australian men is a huge concern, with conditions such as depression, anxiety, and substance use disorders affecting a significant portion of the male population.
Sadly, suicide remains one of the leading causes of death for men in the age group of 15 to 44. Men account for a staggering three in every four suicides in Australia. In 2021, a total of 3,134 people in Australia took their own lives, with 75 per cent of those being men (2,358 male suicides and 786 female suicides).
There is also a higher stigma surrounding mental health for men, making it more difficult for them to recognise and express their symptoms and seek appropriate help.
As an exercise physiologist working closely with first-line responders and veterans impacted by trauma, I believe that exercise plays a crucial role in prioritising men’s mental health and overall wellbeing.
Engaging in physical activity stimulates the release of various neurochemicals in the brain, such as endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. These chemicals are known to regulate mood, promote a sense of wellbeing, and improve overall mental health.
Endorphins, for instance, are often referred to as “feel-good” chemicals because they act as natural painkillers and mood boosters. The release of these neurochemicals during exercise can help counteract feelings of sadness, low mood, and anxiety.
Engaging in physical activity also provides a healthy distraction from negative thoughts and ruminations that often accompany depression and anxiety. Exercise redirects attention away from worries and intrusive thinking patterns, allowing men to focus on the present moment and the physical sensations of movement. This can help break the cycle of negative thinking and provide relief from mental health symptoms.
Have you ever noticed how it’s much easier to talk to trusted friends and family about challenging topics while doing an activity together? It’s the same with exercise. Working out or being active allows you to spend quality time together without having to make constant eye contact, which can make it easier to talk about difficult topics. A conversation while running or cycling can also feel much more private than a busy cafe or a house filled with people, adding to the sense of intimacy and ease.
Whether it’s cycling, walking or playing a footy game with a trusted person, exercising with other people can provide a great outlet for men to express themselves, share experiences, and foster a sense of connection and belonging, reducing feelings of isolation.
Physical activity helps promote better memory and focused concentration by improving blood flow and oxygenation to the brain. This increased mental sharpness can help men to better manage stressors and maintain mental clarity during challenging situations.
Exercise can also protect the brain by reducing inflammation, promoting antioxidant activity, and supporting brain health. By protecting the brain from potential harm, exercise can contribute to long-term brain health and cognitive wellbeing.
Exercise serves as a healthy outlet for emotional expression and regulation. Physical activity can provide a constructive way to channel feelings of frustration, anxiety, anger, or sadness. Through exercise, men can release pent-up emotions, reducing the likelihood of these emotions manifesting in unhealthy ways, such as angry outbursts or risk taking behaviours. Engaging in physical activities allows men to channel their energy into something productive, promoting emotional balance and stability.
By participating in physical activities, men can help regulate their hormone levels, which can enhance their overall wellbeing and even increase their sex drive. For example, regular exercise can increase testosterone, an important hormone for men that not only plays a role in muscle development and strength but also influences mood and libido.
Exercise also helps regulate stress hormones such as cortisol, which can be associated with increased anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms. Regular physical activity helps to regulate the body’s stress response, promoting a more balanced and relaxed state. This, in turn, can alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression by reducing overall stress levels.
By incorporating physical activity into their routine, men can create a positive outlet for stress relief, enhance their overall wellbeing, and better equip themselves to face life’s challenges with resilience, strength and confidence.