“Mind-Body Connection: Exercise for Better Mental Health”

When I was in my final year of college I was doing the sorts of things all my classmates were: finishing final requirements for my degree and thinking (and worrying) about getting a job. I was also planning my wedding and a cross country move.

I felt overwhelmed, anxious, and was having trouble sleeping. To fulfill my last physical education requirement, I decided to take a swimming class.

Within two weeks I was sleeping soundly, my appetite improved and, more importantly, I felt happy again.

The uncertainty about the future hadn’t gone away but I felt stronger and ready to face the adult life that was racing toward me. I learned that exercise has an amazing effect, not just on the body but also on mental health.

Exercise is not only a great way to improve physical health and relieve everyday stress, research shows that it helps improve function in a variety of mental health conditions including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, addictions, grief and dementia.

Like medications, exercise affects the brain, improving our mood and helping us to feel mentally healthy. Exercise also increases the volume of certain regions of the brain- particularly the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, regulation of emotions and learning.

In a Duke University study, researchers studied a group of people diagnosed with clinical depression, comparing treatment with antidepressants, exercise, or both.

After four months, all three groups improved.

In a six-month follow-up of the participants who recovered, those in the exercise groups were 50% less likely to be have depression than the medication only group.

What does all of this mean in terms of how we feel? The mental benefits of exercise include improved sleep and mood, increased interest in sex, stress relief, increased energy, reduction of anxiety, depression and negative mood, and improved self-esteem and cognitive function.

Physically, exercise helps to reduce weight, improve cardiovascular health, lower cholesterol and blood pressure and increase strength and endurance.

To get the most mental health benefits from exercise, the U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends that we spend 45-60 minutes engaging in either aerobic exercise (anything that gets your heart rate up like jogging, biking or aerobic classes) or resistance training (lifting weights, chin ups, using weight machines or resistance bands) three or more times per week. Remember to check with your doctor before starting an exercise program.

People typically start noticing positive changes within four weeks, but maximum results are seen by 10-12 weeks.

Don’t worry if you can’t jump right in with 45 minutes three times a week- start with whatever you can manage and work your way up slowly. Try new activities until you find something you enjoy and if you get bored with what you’re doing, do something else.

The important thing is to keep moving.

Liz Holden is a training and prevention specialist at Copper Country Mental Health and currently coordinates Fit Together, a pilot physical activity program for individuals receiving mental health services.