From backache to sleep problems, there’s a drug-free fix for your health problem. Here’s how to help yourself by getting moving…

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Running for depression

Why: Any aerobic exercise (which raises your heartrate and breathing) has numerous physical benefits but there are psychological ones too. ‘It stimulates neurotransmitters – the brain’s happy pills’ says pain expert Nick Potter.

“Running gives us time to think or clear our heads,’ says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones. “While exercise, natural open spaces, and companionship (if we want it!) boost feel-good brain endorphins.”

GPs are now “prescribing” Parkrun for mild to moderate depression. The free 5km timed runs take place in parks through the country every Saturday morning at 9am. Find out more at parkrun.org.uk.
Not a runner? Try a brisk walk. Any pace which makes you slightly breathless is beneficial. And if you want to take the plunge, check out the “couch to 5km” beginners training programme for would-be joggers at www.nhs.uk.

Studies show that aerobic exercise can be as effective as anti-depressants in treating mild to moderate depression.

Yoga for backache

“Yoga works by building strength, improving flexibility, and reducing joint and muscle pain,” explains yoga teacher Sue Fuller (yoga2hear.co.uk).

Research by Arthritis UK found that a 12-week yoga programme for sufferers of chronic back-pain had greater improvements in back function and more confidence in performing everyday tasks than those offered conventional forms of GP care.

Yoga moves, combined with controlled breathing, can also help reduce stress and improve sleep, both of which have been shown to make pain worse. “When we’re stressed we hold our breath or breathe shallowly which makes pain more intense,” says Nick Potter, an osteopath specializing in pain management. “Deep breathing releases muscles before you stretch them and reduces pain.”

In the longer term, the best approach to help prevent back pain is to improve your core, abdominal strength and build up the muscles in your shoulders and lower back which support the spine. If you suffer from back pain check with your doctor before starting any new exercise programme.

Tennis for osteoporosis

Why: Regular weight-bearing activity such as racquet sports, with the sudden pushing off of weight through your feet, can help maintain bone density. Recent research from Denmark also suggests playing tennis regularly can add 10 years to your life. It’s thought that the social side of the game as well as the physical activity boosts longevity.

Bone is a living tissue, which grows stronger with the force of our muscles pulling against it. ‘Exercise can help delay the rate of age-related bone loss,’ explains Craig Sale, a Professor of Human Physiology at Nottingham Trent University.

MORE: The best ways to exercise at any age – from your 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and beyond

Osteoporosis is a condition where bone density and quality is reduced, and it affects more than two million women in the UK.

As we age we lose more bone, says Prof Sale. “After menopause, when the protective effect of oestrogen on the bone is removed, there’s often an accelerated rate of bone loss.”

Worried about your bones? Talk to your GP about a bone mineral density scan. Contact the National Osteoporosis Society on 0808 800 0035; or nos.org.uk.

Pelvic-floor exercises for bladder weakness

Why: From small leaks when you laugh or sneeze to more serious problems trying to get to the loo in time, urinary incontinence is commonly caused by muscles in the pelvic floor being weakened or damaged by childbirth or ageing. Squeezing exercises can help firm them up again.

Try these three times a day:

  • Simply sit or stand and squeeze your pelvic-floor muscles 15 times in a row. Build up to holding each squeeze for several seconds, and add more squeezes as your floor strengthens. You should notice results after three months.
  • Check you’re tightening the right muscles by trying to stop the flow of urine midstream next time you use the loo. Don’t do that when actually doing the exercises as regularly stopping urine flow can harm your bladder.
  • Keep them going: ‘Pelvic-floor exercises almost always help,’ says Dr Mel, ‘provided you do them properly, several times a day.’

Dancing for dementia

Why: It’s thought that remembering steps and making split-second adjustments to your movements stimulates the brain’s ability to make new connections between cells. The music itself is believed to have a therapeutic effect and the social interaction involved in dancing helps boost mental health. A New Zealand study also found that older adults with dementia appeared to have experienced an improved quality of life after exposure to music and dance, thanks to memory stimulation, mood moderation and social interaction.

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Regular dancing is linked to a whopping 76% reduction in the likelihood of developing dementia, according to US researchers, who studied the link between leisure activities and dementia risk.

It doesn’t matter which step you do, so choose a dance type you enjoy, whether that’s salsa or waltz.
There are other proven mental health benefits, including a reduced risk of depression and anxiety. And dance can affect your mood by raising levels of our natural feelgood hormones dopamine and serotonin.

Cycling for your immunity

Why: Recent studies show it can hold back ageing and boost the immune system. Scientists at the University of Birmingham found cyclists aged 54-79 produced more immune cells (T-cells), the production of which usually starts to shrinks from your 20s. They also preserved muscle mass and strength with age while maintaining stable levels of body fat and cholesterol.

Regular moderate exercise is more beneficial than one big weekly workout, so it makes physical and economic sense to incorporate your bike into everyday use.

The beauty of cycling is that it’s a ‘stealth’ exercise, says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones. “You can integrate it into your lifestyle, simply as part of your movement pattern, like running errands, which makes you more likely to keep it up.”

MORE: How to boost your mental resilience in the face of difficulties

Worried about the roads? Check out the National Cycle Network. It’s traffic free and stretches 16,575 miles across the UK, with more than half of us living within a mile of a route. Find the ones near you at sustrans.org.uk or call 0117 926 8893.

Swimming for arthritis

Why: Low-impact exercise such as swimming means you can push yourself without excess strain on your joints. It helps arthritis by strengthening muscles, easing stiffness and improving joint movement.

Launch into lengths with no particular plan? Virgin Active Swim Manager Georgie Bloy (virginactive.co.uk) suggests this:

  • 20% Warm up: Swim lengths at an easy pace; focus on your breathing.
  • 20% Build set: Increase heart rate and prep your body for the main set. Try 1-2 length intervals of front crawl with 15-second rests.
  • 40% Main set: Set one of these three goals: 
  • Endurance: Do long stretches (100 or 200m) with short breaks between.
  • Speed: Do “sprints” (25-50m, as fast as you can) with short breaks between.
  • Technique: Focus on specific drills, such as using just legs or arms.
  • 20% Warm down: Decrease heart rate, relax breathing. Backstroke is a good option.

Walking for insomnia

Why: Studies show that moderately intense aerobic exercise, such as walking, reduces the time it takes you to nod off and increases the duration of sleep.

It could, in part, be due to the release of anxiety-busting brain chemicals such as serotonin, and the rise and subsequent fall in body temperature which helps promote sleep.

Also walking outside in natural daylight helps set your circadian biological clock – your natural sleep-wake cycle and controls the release of the sleepy hormone melatonin. But it’s not just great for a good night’s sleep, says Dr Melanie Wynne-Jones, “It helps to protect against cardiovascular diseases, cancer, bone-thinning osteoporosis and dementia. It’s also good for our mental health to get out.”