Mental Health Benefits of Weight Loss
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Mental Health Benefits of Weight Loss

Although often a daunting task, losing weight can have a selection of great benefits, bot physically and mentally. Exercise in particular is believed to be excellent for mental health.

A great proportion of the population is overweight or obese and this can significantly impact on an individual’s health, both physically and mentally. The physical benefits of overweight individuals losing weight are well understood, but studies have also indicated that weight loss can have benefits for mental wellbeing too. Here we will discuss the benefits of losing weight and how weight loss and exercise in particular can improve a person’s mental wellbeing.

Why Bother Losing Weight?

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Being obese increases the risk of an individual developing a number of severe health conditions (including, for example, heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer); this is the main reason that people want to lose weight. There are however several other benefits to weight loss if you are overweight. Shedding the excess pounds will help you to be more active (also putting less stress on your joints when you exercise), it can improve your quality of sleep, and for many people, it will have benefits for several areas of mental health.

Beginning a weight loss journey can be a daunting thought, but can clearly have some very significant impacts on your long-term health and the NHS states that these benefits can be seen from losing as little as 5% of your body weight. In order to lose a considerable amount of weight, a person will have to make changes to their diet and their lifestyle – eating healthier and partaking in regular exercise.

The Mental Benefits of Weight Loss

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Losing weight will have different effects on different people, but research has indicated that weight loss can have notable benefits for mental health. A study published in 2003 investigated the relationship between depression and obesity. The trial involved 487 patients who undertook a depression inventory questionnaire before and every year after receiving weight loss surgery. It was found that severely obese individuals were at high risk of depression, particularly younger women with poor body image, and that improvements in mental health could be seen with weight loss.

Similarly, a 2010 review paper concluded that there is a relationship between obesity and anxiety disorders. The authors of this paper pooled the data from a selection of studies that looked at obesity and anxiety as an outcome. The results of 16 studies were used that fitted the inclusion criteria and analyses of these results suggested that there does indeed seem to be a positive link between obesity and anxiety, though there is still a lot to be learnt with regards to the effects of different subtypes of anxiety.

A study published in the journal ‘Appetite’ in 2014 looked at the psychological benefits of weight loss. This paper was a systematic review, meaning that the authors looked at data from a number of different studies that were relevant to their aims. A total of 36 studies were identified that looked at the psychological outcomes of weight loss, nine of which fitted the inclusion criteria and used a suitable control group. The results suggested that people who lost weight consistently saw improvements in body image and health-related quality of life. It was noted however, that more study is required on the topic to obtain a better understanding of the links between weight loss and ‘psychological outcomes’.

One research group has also published a selection of studies that suggest a link between obesity and memory function. The authors have reported that memory performance tends to be reduced in obese adults. In a study of 486 healthy participants (divided into normal weight, overweight, and obese groups), those who were obese had reduced memory performance when compared to the other groups. This was found to be the case independent of the age group. A study published in 2011 was performed to test whether or not gastric bypass surgery might have an effect on cognition. One hundred and fifty subjects took part in the trial that involved cognitive evaluation before bypass surgery and 12 weeks afterwards. The results indicated that bariatric surgery could improve memory just 12 weeks after surgery. Results of another paper (published by the same research group) indicated that improved memory function could be seen two years after bariatric surgery.

Exercise and Mental Health

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As well as the potential benefits for weight loss in general, mental health is thought to be greatly improved with exercise. There are a number of reasons for this, which we will explore in this section. The relationship between getting plenty of physical exercise and psychological wellbeing has been well studied, with a large number of high-quality scientific papers available to view on the topic.

Firstly, exercising can provide short-term benefits for mood. When the body is undergoing physical activity, the brain secretes feel-good hormones, known as endorphins. Exercising can also have more long-term benefits for mental health. Getting regular exercise has been linked to improvements in stress levels, body image, satisfaction, mood, and energy levels.

A 1984 review paper provides a handy summary of the relationship between exercise and endorphins. The authors state that there is an established link between exercise and training programmes and an increase in certain opioids (endorphins). Increases in these chemicals have also been associated with a number of mental (as well as physical) changes. Amongst these are improvements in mood, pain perception, stress responses, and even menstrual disturbances in female athletes.

In 2001, a trial was published that looked at the effects of exercise training on patients with moderate to severe depression. The trial involved 12 subjects with a major depressive episode of, on average, 35 weeks. The patients were subjected to interval training in the form of walking on a treadmill. This was performed for 30 minutes each day for a period of 10 days. By the end of the trial it was concluded that regular aerobic exercise could significantly improve mood in those who suffer with depressive disorders.

This effect does not appear to be limited to depression. A review paper reports that there are numerous psychological benefits to regular exercise and analysed a selection of relevant studies to this effect. It was found that aerobic exercise training could improve depression and cause a resilience to stress, helping to improve anxiety and other psychological problems.

Exercise has also been said to be beneficial for boosting self-esteem. One study used 24 adults who were all breast cancer survivors and randomly divided them into three groups: exercise, exercise and behavioural modification, and control. The exercises performed by the first two groups were aerobic and performed four days a week. The trial lasted 10 weeks. The findings suggested that exercise could significantly reduce depression and anxiety symptoms in these groups; this study did not however find any significant changes in self-esteem.

It is clear that whilst the specifics are still undergoing scientific investigation, there are a great many potential benefits of regular exercise for mental health. These benefits are well documented in the scientific literature and so broadly speaking, it can be stated with certainty that undertaking physical exercise can improve an individual’s psychological wellbeing.

Which Exercises are Best for Improving Mental Health?

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The majority of studies that have been discussed have found positive effects of aerobic exercise on areas of mental health. Aerobic exercise is that which is not too high-intensity but is performed for a longer period of time; examples of common aerobic exercises include walking, running, swimming, and cycling. It is also understood that performing exercise in a natural outdoor environment might have psychological benefits. Studies have suggested that exercising outdoors can cause reductions in anger, tension, and confusion, whilst increasing feelings of revitalisation and energy, when compared to exercising in an indoor environment.

From the studies discussed above, it is clear that exercising on a regular basis can be beneficial for mental health. Studies have also looked at the duration of exercise. In a 2001 trial, participants were tested whilst at rest and during exercise at 10 minute periods up to half an hour whilst cycling. The results of this study suggested that improvements in mood, fatigue, and vigour, could be seen after 10 minutes, and that improvements in confusion continued over 20 minutes. It was concluded that in order to benefit from the positive mental effects of exercise, individuals should undergo 30 minutes of moderate activity every day, experienced in short bouts at different points in the day.

Conclusion

Some studies have suggested that there might be a link between obesity and depression, and that in turn, weight loss can help to combat this. The effects of weight loss broadly on mental health can be variable, since dieting can have negative effects on mental wellbeing. Nevertheless, the beneficial effects of exercise on psychological wellbeing are well understood and come in many forms. Regular exercise can improve mood, stress levels, anxiety, and depression, amongst other things. It is recommended that in order to make the most of the mental health benefits of exercise, people perform 30 minutes of aerobic activity daily.

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