Thursday, August 27, 2015

The Mental Benefits of Exercise

       Obviously, there are many health benefits to be gained from exercise, both mental and physical. For those of us with mental illnesses, the mental benefits can be extraordinarily profound. I love the research done into this subject. There is far more data on how exercise can be helpful in reducing symptoms than I could cover in an entire book, much less this post. So, instead of boring anyone with mounds of data, I am going to list a few bullet points from some of my favorite doctors, researchers and publications, that I have collected over the years.

       First, Dr. Callahan, who is head of The Department of Mental Health and Learning Disability, in London wrote this, There is evidence that exercise is beneficial for mental health; it reduces anxiety, depression, and negative mood, and improves self-esteem and cognitive functioning. Exercise is also associated with improvements in the quality of life of those living with Schizophrenia.” I don't think that a broader, and more inclusive, statement can be made and still be within the bounds of science. In other words, there is a great deal of evidence that exercise helps to alleviate the symptoms of many mental illnesses.

       This is a clip from Rich Dopp, MD who is a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan. It is short and to the point, which I love. One of my favorite statements is when he says, "One of the self-care strategies with the biggest payoff is exercise. Scientific research has shown that exercise is effective at reducing symptoms, increasing energy and improving sleep. The benefits can be immediate, helping you fell better right away."

       This excerpt is from Harvard Health Publications, and it made me laugh the first time I read it. This is one of the most respected publications on earth, and in this article the authors are so excited about the benefits of exercise for improving mental health that they almost sound like salespeople:

Aerobic exercise is key for your head, just as it is for your heart. You may not agree at first; indeed, the first steps are the hardest, and in the beginning, exercise will be more work than fun. But as you get into shape, you’ll begin to tolerate exercise, then enjoy it, and finally depend on it. 

Regular aerobic exercise will bring remarkable changes to your body, your metabolism, your heart, and your spirits. It has a unique capacity to exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress. It’s a common experience among endurance athletes and has been verified in clinical trials that have successfully used exercise to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. If athletes and patients can derive psychological benefits from exercise, so can you.

       I find this excerpt helpful if symptoms creep up, and I don't want to exercise. It is from James Blumenthal, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Duke University. "There's good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program. Exercise seems not only important for treating depression, but also in preventing relapse." I remind myself of this if I don't feel like exercising, because it's at times like those that exercise can be crucial.

       Michael Otto, professor of psychology at Boston University, and his colleagues, reviewed 11 major studies that investigated the effects of exercise on mental health. They concluded that exercise is a powerful intervention for clinical depression. They went on to say that clinicians should consider adding exercise to the treatment plan for their depressed patients (Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 2006). Dr. Otto stated, "The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect."

       The Journal of Depression and Anxiety reported in 2008 that patients with anxiety disorders who participated in an exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with control groups after only two weeks of participation. 

       Jasper Smits, Ph.D., Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program, discovered that people with high anxiety sensitivities who also have high activity levels were less likely to panic than those who exercised infrequently (Psychosomatic Medicine, 2011). He went on to suggest that these findings meant that physical exercise could actually be vital in warding off panic attacks. "Activity may be especially important for people at risk of developing anxiety disorder," Smits says. I have found that the best way to counter my overactive adrenal gland is to exercise. For me, nothing burns off excess adrenaline quite like exercise.

       In a study that was published by The United States Institutes of Health in 2010 titled What Works for People with Bipolar Disorder? Tips From the Experts, it was stated that exercise and rest were identified as being among the most helpful factors in managing bipolar disorder. A specific theme was on finding the right type of exercise, which is dependent on the individual. That was key for me. I had to find the type of exercises that were right for me. More information on that can be found in The Best Exercise For Mental Illnesses post.

       Finally, The United States National Institutes of Health published a study titled A pilot study of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for obsessive compulsive disorder. Here is what they found:
"Study findings at the end of this 12-week aerobic exercise intervention point to a beneficial effect (Cohen's d = 1.69) on reduction in OCD symptom severity. Further, reductions in OCD symptom severity appear to persist 6 months later. Lastly, improvement in overall sense of well-being was observed after the 12-week intervention." Obviously, I am a strong believer in exercise, but even I was astonished that they found symptom reduction persisted six months later and that the individual's "overall sense of well-being" continued after the intervention. That is profound.

       Again, the list of research on the benefits of exercise to relieve many of the symptoms of mental illnesses could go on for thousands of pages. However, I think that the message is clear. There is a high degree of likelihood that if a person who suffers from a mental illness can, and will, exercise, then he/she will experience fewer symptoms and feel better about themselves.
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As always I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is a great resource, and is staffed by wonderful people. 

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