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Exercise for Mental Health

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Courtesy of: Ashish Sharma, M.D., Vishal Madaan, M.D., and Frederick D. Petty, M.D., Ph.D.

Mental health is a major aspect of maintaining a good overall well-being. Like any other part of the body, the mind can become compromised. With anxiety and depression affecting 40 million people in the United States, health care providers are looking incorporate new ways to improve mental health. Medical Doctors, Sharma, Madaan, and Petty believe that the daily effects of exercising are key to achieving good mental health.

Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.These improvements in mood are proposed to be caused by exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain and by an influence on the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and, thus, on the physiologic reactivity to stress.This physiologic influence is probably mediated by the communication of the HPA axis with several regions of the brain, including the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which plays an important part in memory formation as well as in mood and motivation.

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function. Exercise has also been found to alleviate symptoms such as low self-esteem and social withdrawal. Exercise is especially important in patients with schizophrenia since these patients are already vulnerable to obesity and also because of the additional risk of weight gain associated with antipsychotic treatment, especially with the atypical antipsychotics. Patients suffering from schizophrenia who participated in a 3-month physical conditioning program showed improvements in weight control and reported increased fitness levels, exercise tolerance, reduced blood pressure levels, increased perceived energy levels, and increased upper body and hand grip strength levels. Thirty minutes of exercise of moderate intensity, such as brisk walking for 3 days a week, is sufficient for these health benefits. Moreover, these 30 minutes need not to be continuous; three 10-minute walks are believed to be as equally useful as one 30-minute walk.

Health benefits from regular exercise that should be emphasized and reinforced by every mental health professional to their patients include the following:

  1. Improved sleep
  2. Increased interest in sex
  3. Better endurance
  4. Stress relief
  5. Improvement in mood
  6. Increased energy and stamina
  7. Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
  8. Weight reduction
  9. Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

Mental health service providers can thus provide effective, evidence-based physical activity interventions for individuals suffering from serious mental illness. Further studies should be done to understand the impact of combining such interventions with traditional mental health treatment including psychopharmacology and psychotherapy.

 
 

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