UAE: Enhance mood and tackle toxic stress through exercise, urge experts

Psychologists believe that the hectic pace of life and demanding workdays are putting an immense amount of pressure on mental and brain health


SM Ayaz Zakir

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Published: Wed 14 Dec 2022, 3:14 PM

Last updated: Wed 14 Dec 2022, 3:39 PM

UAE residents and people throughout the world are reporting high levels of stress and burnout, say psychologists, with brain fog, fragmented attention, an inability to focus, and poor memory among the many cognitive impairments that accompany it.

Experts believe that the hectic pace of life and the demand of the work week put an immense amount of pressure on mental and brain health. “There is good news – you can do something not just to protect [yourself] against the toxic effects of stress, but also to reverse the effects,” said Dr Saliha Afridi, clinical psychologist and managing director of The Lighthouse Arabia.

"You have the power to change your brain. All you have to do is lace up your running shoes", said Dr Afridi, quoting John Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and an internationally recognised expert in neuropsychiatry.


Residents of the UAE, specifically Dubai, however, are in luck, as the emirate is keen to prioritise the physical and mental health of its citizens. Every year, the Dubai Fitness Challenge (DFC) brings a new opportunity to the city, and serves as a reminder of the importance of incorporating fitness and physical activity into daily routines.

With this year’s DFC having just wrapped up, if you happen to be one of the 2.2 million people who took part, now is the time to ensure you continue with your 30 minutes of daily exercise – not just for your physical health, but also for your mental health.

Dr Afridi notes 3 reasons why exercise improves mental well-being and protects against stress. “Exercise protects against the effects of toxic stress on your brain, increases your threshold of stress, and reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety while inducing euphoric feelings,” said Dr Afridi.

So how does exercise enhance mood and reduce stress?

Dr Lakshmi Saranya, clinical psychologist at Mediclinic Deira, said that exercise induces blood circulation to the brain, stimulating the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis to enhance your mood. “Exercise influences the limbic system, which is responsible for enhancing your mood or motivation."

"It reduces fear or anxiety in response to stress, and also helps [with] improving the functioning of the hippocampus… the part responsible for memory.”

Here are Dr Saliha Afridi's tips for the country's residents to help optimise brain performance:

  • Do some form of aerobic activity for 45-60 minutes, six days each week. That’s around 250-300 minutes of aerobic activity per week.
  • For four of the six days, try to aim for longer workouts at 60-75 per cent of your max heart rate (moderate intensity exercise). The remaining two days per week can be on the shorter side at 75 per cent of your max heart rate (high intensity exercise).
  • Find something that you enjoy doingm whether it's running, HIIT, swimming or tennism or even a combination of all of them, and engage in it every single day – because the best exercise is the exercise that you can come back to again and again.

Psychologists note that the fitness challenge is a highly exciting opportunity, and a reminder of the importance of incorporating fitness and physical activity into our daily lives.

“DFC is taking responsibility for the health of the city's residents through the incorporation of social measures [that also serve as] reminders to [maintain] a balance within oneself and with the environment,” said Dr Saranya.

“Health-related behaviours can improve with health promotion programmes [like these]. [They] enhance the motivation and the competitive spirit of a person to remain healthy,” she concluded.

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