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Making Mental Health Matter: Using Physical Fitness to Strengthen Your Mind and Body

Over the past few decades, maintaining mental health and spreading awareness on mental illness has become a crucial issue in North America. Mood Disorder’s Society of Canada defines mental health as a balance of mental, spiritual, physical and emotional health while mental illness is defined as serious disturbances in thoughts, feeling and perceptions that affect day-to-day functions. Categories of mental illness are as follows: mood disorders (depression, bipolar disorder), anxiety disorders (obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder), psychotic disorders (schizophrenia), eating disorders (anorexia, bulimia and muscle dysmorphia) and dementia.

In 2009, the Mood Disorder Society of Canada put out a survey about the percentages of Canadian citizens that are affected by some form of mental illness and the consequences if gone untreated.  Over ten percent of the Canadian population will be diagnosed with a mental health illness. Eight percent will be clinical depression, one percent will have Bipolar disorder or Schizophrenia, thirteen percent will develop some form of panic disorder and three percent of people will develop and eating disorder. These numbers are also on a steady rise.

The effects of mental health illnesses are as follows. The effect of mental illness can be devastating for the person and society. Death by suicide makes up twenty-four percent of deaths in Canada; ninety percent of those casualties have resulted from an undiagnosed mental illness. Seventy to ninety percent of people who suffer from mental illness are unemployed and are more than double the chance of being a victim of a violent crime than the general population. The Canadian government spends roughly thirty-three billion dollars a year on managing and preventing mental illness issues. The cost of housing a patient with mental illness is over one hundred thousand dollars per year.

The threat and impact of mental illness is very real, on both a personal and society level. Fortunately, there are a number of solutions to help deal with and improve mental health. Medications are often prescribed by a licensed psychiatrist to treat a variety of mental illnesses. There are also a variety of therapies to teach people how to manage and cope with their illnesses. Group therapy is often a popular method to build a sense of community and belonging.

In addition to taking medications and other therapeutic treatments, patients and various mental health professionals alike, are also looking into exercise as a way of coping with various symptoms of mental illness and aiding in the recovery process in addition to taking medications and other therapeutic treatments.

In this article, we will be looking at the effects that physical activity has on people with mental health issues. Positive effects include alleviating symptoms of depression, reducing the intensity of anxiety attacks, while improving other components of mental health such as higher levels of confidence, self-concept, and mental cognation and social interactions. These results are similar to cognitive group therapy to cope with feelings of anger, frustration and chronic fatigue. We will then look into the right intensity, duration and frequency needed to promote optimal changes for patients recovering or dealing with mental health issues. Finally, we will address negative effects of exercise and how exercise in itself can become an addiction.

To reiterate, the purpose of this article is not to advocate the replacement of therapy and psychiatrist prescribe medication in order to treat clinical mental health disorders with exercise alone but to aid in the recovery process. Mental health patients are encouraged to seek professional help in dealing with their disorders.

Studies done by the University of Texas comparing active groups and rested groups of patients have shown that doing 30-minutes of moderate intensity cardiovascular training (60%-70% of estimated heart rate max) has positive effects, both short and long-term, on depressive symptoms by increasing positive emotions.

From a physiological standpoint, this may have to do with the fact that during moderate physical activity, endorphins and monoamine hormones are secreted which act in the same manner as anti-depressive drugs while minimizing the release of hormones related to stress response. This is why acute bouts of exercise may be useful in alleviating short term symptoms of depression and anxiety.

While trying to define the long term effects of physical training on depressive symptoms, patients stated they felt a greater sense of well-being and vigor. They felt more confident, had a better body image, were able to deal with anger and frustrations, improved cognitive function and had all around better coping skills. Through various mental health questionnaires filled out by the patients and through extensive interviews, medical professionals were able to determine the psychological factors behind these improvements. Most noted was workouts offered a healthy distraction towards patient’s problems. Feelings of helplessness decreased after taking action to minimize symptoms, giving clients a sense of power, control and accomplishment after the workouts ended. Finally, social interactions were also a crucial factor in clients improved state of well-being.

Studies have also been done to find any negative psychological effects the exercise can have on the mind and how it can worsen symptoms of mental illness. Excessive exercise usually occurs in people with some form of obsessive compulsive disorder, usually triggered by unrealistic perceptions of their physique, which can lead to anorexia nervosa or muscle dysmorphia. Many elite level athletes may also experience some form of overtraining syndrome during training for a competition. Overtraining syndrome is characterized as mood deterioration similar to depression during intense training for an upcoming sports event.

When administering a training regimen to assist clients in the recovery process of dealing with a mental illness, recommendations are that training should focus more on cardiovascular conditioning with strength training as a secondary component. Aim for light to moderate intensities, 60%-70% of maximum heart rate or an RPE scale of 12-14 for 20-30 minute duration. Setting appropriate goals and expectations is crucial to getting a patient to achieve a sense of success. Developing social contacts while exercising, clients become a part of a community that will aid in the recovery process.

We all know the great benefits for physical activity for the vast majority of the population. Through this article, I wanted to explore and explain the profits that physical activity can have on people’s mental and emotional well-being to a population who’s already struggling with mental health issues out of their control. Mental illness is an issue that must be dealt through therapy, medication and helped by physical fitness. I believe we can make great strides in teaching people to live happier, more independent lives.

By: Kyle Lobb

 

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