Many people, in fact I'm sure almost every adult and teenager, know that exercise is a critical part of our physical health. Health care professionals, teachers, and even our own family members will often tell us how important physical exercise is for our hearts, muscles, and lungs. Even while most of us know how important staying active is, it is estimated that upwards of 80% of the American population does not get sufficient exercise. But could it be that when we choose to neglect our physical health, we may also be neglecting or mental and emotional health as well? I recently came across an intriguing article that reaffirmed something that I myself believe whole-heartedly. According to this article, a study was conducted in which patients in an in-patient psychiatric unit were assigned to take part in a 60 minute exercise session, consisting of cardiovascular exercise, strength training and flexibility exercises. A whopping 95% of individuals reported feeling significantly better. For me, this demonstrates just how important exercise is with regards to not just our physical health, but our mental and emotional health as well.
As a physician who practices integrative medicine, I am a strong believer that all of the aspects of our health are very much related. There are 5 key aspects to an individual's personal health and they include physical, mental, emotional, social and spiritual health. To help you understand the interconnection of these 5 areas of health and how exercise fits in to the overall picture, I will give you a couple of scenarios. Have you ever been in the middle of a really good conversation with a trusted friend, whether having a meal together or taking a walk in a park on a nice day, and noticed the way you felt? Perhaps you felt a sense of joy, contentment, or even excitement? This is an example of a direct correlation between our social health and emotional health. When we take some time out of our day to connect with someone that we care about, we are actually strengthening various aspects of our personal health. From a physiological perspective, when we are doing something as simple as thinking about something positive, we are stimulating the anterior cortex and amygdala of the brain. This results in the release of neurotransmitters, including dopamine and serotonin, which are believed to be directly involved with happiness and the transfer of positive emotions. Have you ever noticed the feeling that you get after a good workout? Whether it was swimming, weight lifting or even taking a stroll around the block, chances are that, if even for a brief period of time, your mood was elevated and whatever problems you had been thinking about earlier seemed just a little less important. Research has shown that while we are exercising, and for a period of time immediately following exercise, specific neurotransmitters or "feel good hormones" as they are often called, are released and promote a positive feeling in our body and mind. As we adopt a more regular exercise habit, the result is cumulative. Dopamine, which increases significantly during exercise, and serotonin, which increases following exercise, both increase in concentration and spread more abundantly to other parts of the brain. This then translates to various benefits in the body and mind, one of which is an improved overall mood.
With all of this in mind, it makes perfect sense that the researchers conducting the study on exercise and mental health are suggesting that exercise should actually be prescribed prior to psychiatric drugs!1 When it comes to all of the medications in the pharmaceutical world, SSRIs and other types of psychiatric medications are known for having some of the most significant side effects and complications. This often results in the side effects outweighing any temporary benefits of the medications. As I mentioned above, 95% of patients reported feeling better following their exercise session. In fact, 63 percent stated that their mood went from sad or very sad to happy or very happy. As someone who regularly incorporates weight-lifting, cardio and flexibility training into my own weekly routine, these results do not surprise me. I believe that the idea of incorporating exercise as a first line defense for mental health issues prior to beginning a psychiatric drug treatment protocol is something that should seriously be considered. With this in mind, it is important to note that exercise is by no means a replacement for mental health counseling. If you or anyone else you know are experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or any other mental health disturbances, it is very important to talk to a healthcare professional who can work with you on addressing the underlying cause of your symptoms. Unfortunately, there is no magic pill or overnight cure. But, with the right combination of treatment, which should almost always include physical exercise, significant improvements can be made.
If you would like more information on exercise and mental health or if you would like about what types of exercise might be right for you, please contact Richards Integrative Medicine.
1. Beres, Derek. 29 May, 2019. https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/exercise-mental-health?rebelltitem=2#rebelltitem2