How Exercise Saved This Mother's Life

For Meagan Clarke, taking up exercise was a way to lose weight, but it soon became a way of dealing with challenges life threw at her.

With prompting from her best friend, Meagan 33, nervously attended a private personal training session in a bid to get healthier.

At the time, the mum-of-two was riddled with anxiety and depression after her two children,  eight-year-old Taylor, and four-year-old Roy, were diagnosed with serious illnesses.

Taylor was diagnosed with a mediastinal mass, a tumour that grows in the chest cavity between the lungs.

While Meagan's son Roy suffers from hypermobility syndrome, meaning his joints move beyond normal limits making him susceptible to injuries.

Meagan with her son, Roy and daughter, Taylor. Image: Supplied

Day-to-day living was becoming a struggle as a single mother of two children with complex medical needs.

"The juggling act of having the mortgage on my own, the two kids being unwell and the hospital trips, I couldn't cope with life in general  ," she told ten daily.

"I was at a stage where everything had just become too much."

Then she joined Anytime Fitness. Meagan was able to adapt strategies she learnt in the gym to real life scenarios that she had previously struggled with.

Meagan lost 40kgs and her anxiety has disappeared and said she can now be the 'super mum her kids need'.

"Exercise has literally saved my life" she said.

The  mother-of-two said it wasn't just about the weight loss and health benefits when she attends the gym, but rather the life lessons you learn from exercise.

"Training in a sense of satisfaction, achieving something that seems impossible, like certain weights or running without stopping, might seem impossible, I know that now the harder it gets, the more I put into it, that I can get there," she said.

Before and after Meagan starting training. Image: Supplied

Aside from losing weight, the effects exercise as had on her mental health are "mindblowing" for Meagan, who said the impact is also shared with her kids.

"Being overweight and not training, the world just seemed way too hard, versus now, when I have legit problems, because I am training, life seems a lot easier," she said.

Image: Supplied

There are three main ways exercise can help, Dr Joseph Firth, a Research Fellow at the National Institute of Complementary Health Research Institute told ten daily.

The first, the context of activity -- being outdoors and with other people while exercising -- can have a positive effect of mood and mental health.

The second way is through the neurochemical effects on the brain as chemicals that reduce stress are released through using muscles Firth said.

Image: Getty Images

Exercise has been proven to impact the brain physiologically, and serotonin created by the body during exercise is known to increase mood explained Associate Professor Cristina Caperchione from the University of Technology Sydney.

"Much of the research [in this area] has shown exercise can achieve great improvements in depression, anxiety and cognitive function," Caperchione, who is a health and physical researcher, told ten daily.

Image: Getty Images

The third way Firth explained physical activity is beneficial are the personal gains a person can make while exercising.

"The personal achievements and self-esteem boosts a person gets impact a person's mental health," Firth, an expert in mental health and psychiatry research, said.

Using exercise as a tool for better mental health doesn't require long, arduous hours spent in the gym.

"Changes in mental health can be seen in as little as 20 minutes," Caperchione said.

The recommended guidelines for exercise is 150 minutes a week, and this can be broken down into four 30 minute sessions and three 10 minutes sessions.

There is no one-size-fits all approach to using exercise as a mental health tool, and each person should figure out what is most beneficial for them.

Image: Getty Images

Structured exercise -- such as putting time aside to go for a swim or trying a new sport -- is the best way of increasing mental health through exercise Firth said.

"The ideal exercise is one that you can enjoy so that you can stick it out, and this will have the greatest impact," he said.

But Caperchione warns that while exercise can have a direct impact on improving mental heath, it is not a cure, and should be used hand-in-hand with other treatments.