“…but have you tried exercising?”
The phrase almost every patient, especially the more seasoned behavioral health patients, will shudder or wince upon hearing, and immediately begin the self-defeating, low self-esteem inner monologue that tries to negate the value of the question, which is, it turns out, one of the best questions a mental health practitioner can ask. But like so much valuable medical advice, many clients are reluctant to take it seriously.
And so, the defense begins.
Yeah, I exercise. Well, sorta of. And my diet is okay. I mean, it could be better, but whose couldn’t, you know? What this actually translates to is something deeper. What lies between the lines is this: Look, I don’t try to be depressed or anxious. I don’t choose to engage in regular battles with insomnia and nightmares. I’ve dealt with this for as long as I can remember, and I doubt running around, getting sweaty, and gasping for air is going to make a difference.
The whole truth, though, is that exercise does make a difference. Not only is it a crucial step toward self-empowerment and a confidence booster, but a keeping regular fitness routine has clear-cut and well-researched positive effects on the same neurotransmitters that are involved with common behavioral health complications such as Major Depression and Dysthymia.
It wasn’t until I developed a real love for integrating challenging (and, as it turns out, incredibly fun) exercise as a part of my daily routine that I began to truly understand its transformative psychological and physiological properties. It was during my first semester of Anatomy that I realized how foolish I’d been to neglect using aerobic and anaerobic activities that boosted the chemicals my brain craved. It was this bit of knowledge, combined with an introduction to fitness programs created by Les Mills, that I realized exercise was essential in order for me to live my life to the fullest.
Getting Your Sexy (& Neurotransmitters) On: The Benefits Of Fitness
- Reduction of stress, anxiety, and depression
- Release of Endorphins, which boosts feelings of euphoria
- Better cognitive functioning and memory
- Increased release/higher concentrations of Serotonin and Dopamine
- Improvement of sleep/wake cycle (via boosted Melatonin)
- Decreased release of harmful stress-hormones (e.g., Cortisol)
- Boosted energy and libido
- Strengthened cardiovascular and respiratory systems
- Stronger bones, heart, and muscle tone
- Reduced cholesterol levels and lower blood pressure
- Reduced body fat and lethargy
- Looking and feeling healthy and (let’s be honest here!) sexy
Does exercise cure Major Depressive disorder? Of course not. But it is a highly effective (and largely underutilized) strategy that is imperative to add to the treatment of behavioral health disorders. As anyone who suffers from these potentially debilitating conditions can tell you, any reduction in symptoms makes a tremendous of difference. It may very well mean having the ability to get out of bed, or go outside, or any of the seemingly simple activities that can elude those in the throes of a mental health crisis. According to a research study conducted at Harvard Medical School:
Can a few laps around the block actually solve your emotional problems? Probably not, but a regular exercise program might help. A review of studies stretching back to 1981 concluded that regular exercise can improve mood in people with mild to moderate depression. It also may play a supporting role in treating severe depression.
So how does this all work? On one hand, we have the neurological and physiological stuff, and on the other hand, we have concepts of self-esteem. Boost them both simultaneously, and you have a serious depression-battling weapon. In fact, according to scientific research, people who are on antidepressants stand the best chance of substantially benefitting from frequent aerobic exercise. Since exercise releases the “feel good” neurotransmitters that antidepressant medications prevent the brain from breaking down as quickly, the chemical effects can last longer and are more pronounced.
Don’t Panic: You Can Lessen the Symptoms of Anxiety Disorder & Regain Control of Your Life
The evidence from a wide variety of scientific studies is astounding. An exhaustive analysis of prior studies on the benefits of exercise in combatting mental health disorders, coupled with additional population-based research, was recently published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. Dr. Craft of Northwestern University and Dr. Perna of the National Cancer Institute (NCI) found that aerobic training programs for individuals suffering from depression showed “a clear reduction in depression compared with the control condition,” and discovered that the improvements held up three, seven, and ultimately even a year later. Further, another study illustrated that “just 30 minutes of treadmill walking for 10 consecutive days was sufficient to produce a clinically relevant and statistically significant reduction in depression (reduction of 6.5 points from baseline on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression).”
Most people with Anxiety and Panic disorders understand how deep the illness runs; how it is always present to varying degrees. That is, it’s not only the panic attacks that are harmful, but the fear of panic striking at any moment. In essence, constant worry over the possibility of having a panic attack, especially in a public space, elevates daily levels of anxiety. Respectively, the fear of loss of control often leads to agoraphobia, unhealthy perfectionism, excessive worrying/nervousness, compulsions, self-consciousness, paranoia, and avoidance of places where attacks have occurred. Anxiety disorder also directly affects the body, increasing the likelihood of developing chronic indigestion or IBS, constant muscle tension, chronic insomnia, nausea, dizziness, sweating, chest pain, and elevated blood pressure.
Living with anxiety and panic is challenging and painful…but there are ways to begin to recover. Research has revealed that “both high- and low-intensity exercise reduce anxiety sensitivity.” Further, the findings from clinical and randomized controlled trials conducted by doctors from The University of Southern Mississippi’s Psychology Department revealed that ”high-intensity exercise caused more rapid reductions in a global measure of anxiety sensitivity and produced more treatment responders than low-intensity exercise” and that high-intensity exercise specifically “reduced fear of anxiety-related bodily sensations.”
Yes You Can!: Turning “I Can’t Stick With It” Into “I Just Can’t Get Enough!”
Excuses abound when it comes to the reason we can’t stick with our new exercise routines, which results in nigh countless, failed resolutions to implement a fitness routine on a long-term basis. Let’s not focus on why you can’t incorporate exercise into your life, but discuss why you absolutely can.
You DO have enough time to exercise! Professionals recommend just 30 to 60 minutes a day, so click off the television and get going! Check out WebMD’s 30-Minute Workouts.
- You ARE NOT too busy. You just haven’t (yet!) made exercise a habit.
- You ARE NOT too old or too fat to change your life. You simply have to WANT TO.
- Exercise DOES NOT HAVE TO BE BORING. If running on the track is a snooze, choose something else! You’re taking your life back, which should be fun and exhilarating. For example, Les Mills has created super fun cardiovascular workouts such as Sh’Bam! and Body Combat. You can get a serious workout in while getting down to Lady Gaga.
- Thin DOES NOT equal fit. While having a lean body often yields greater health outcomes, that doesn’t mean you are in the clear. In fact, a study conducted in the UK revealed that up to 60% of individuals with normal body weights still have excess body fat, which can lead to all sorts of health complications.
- YOU CAN SUCCEED! You may have tried exercise before, but if you quit, you didn’t try the right one. Set reasonable goals for yourself, and think about what you really love to do. Dancing? Yoga? Hiking? Swimming? Gardening? There’s something for everyone—you just have to find it and know that YOU have the ability to empower yourself!