This months article has been contributed by my coworker, Mindy Klowden, Development Manager at Jefferson Center for Mental Health who believes in a healthy lifestyle and the benefits of keeping fit.  Her active lifestyle enabled her to climb Mt. Kiliminjaro, the highest mountain in Africa at 19’800 ft.!

Stress at work, noisy neighbors, traffic. The demands of life today make it easy to feel a loss of control over our emotions and our lives. It is increasingly difficult to find the time we need to take care of ourselves, to adapt to our changing environment and to recharge emotionally. Yet how we take care of, or don’t take care of, our bodies can directly impact our mental health. The good news is that making positive choices in the areas of fitness and diet/nutrition can help you lead a happier, healthier life!

While it is widely known that exercise is critical to maintain physical fitness and help prevent high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and other diseases, “there is now ample evidence that a definite relationship exists between exercise and improved mental health,” says Dr. Daniel M. Landers from Arizona State University. “This is particularly evident in the case of a reduction of anxiety and depression…it also seems to be beneficial in enhancing self-esteem, producing more restful sleep, and helping people recover more quickly from psychosocial stressors.”

In fact, “Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General” (1999) found that persons who are inactive are twice as likely to have symptoms of depression vs. more active persons. Some evidence suggests that exercise positively affects the levels of certain mood-enhancing neurotransmitters in the brain. Exercise may also boost feel-good endorphins, release tension in muscles, help you sleep better and reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol.

Exercise may also improve mental health by helping the brain cope better with stress

and forces the body’s physiological systems – all of which are involved in the stress response – to communicate much more closely than usual, increasing our ability to respond to stress more efficiently.

For many, physical activity can provide a healthy way to let go of anger and negative energy.  Whether by walking 3 miles or bowling, the physical release of energy reduces feelings of anger in a healthy way.

The social aspects of exercise can also be very beneficial for mental health.  For example, a group exercise class such as yoga or aerobics provides opportunity for social interaction, support and relief from daily stressors.  Those who challenge themselves with sports can gain improved feelings of self-mastery.  Anyone who sticks to a regular exercise routine of any kind is likely to grow stronger and feel more comfortable with themselves and their body.

It is important to note that exercise isn’t meant to replace medical treatment of clinical depression, anxiety or other mental illness.  If you exercise regularly but depression or anxiety still impairs your daily functioning, seek professional help.

Mental health and physical health are inextricably linked. Making a life-long commitment to a healthy lifestyle, that includes regular exercise and a nutritious diet, is vital to your well being.  Why not start today!

Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health

  • Increased self-confidence, self-esteem, and self-efficacy
  • A healthy way to cope with stress
  • Overall sense of well being and positive mood
  • Decreased anxiety
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased mental clarity
  • Opportunity for social interaction
  • Distraction from unpleasant thoughts
  • It can be fun and lets you spend time outside (walking, biking, hiking, skiing, etc.)

Developing an Exercise Routine That is Right for You

  • Choose activities that you find personally satisfying
  • Start with easy or moderate activity and build it up as you get stronger
  • Balance aerobic activities such as walking, running, skiing, or biking with strength training (weights) and flexibility (pilates, yoga)
  • Join a gym, club, or recreation center for more social activities or support
  • Seek advice from your Doctor
  • Set reasonable goals
  • Think of exercise as an opportunity, not a burden!

Contact your local senior center or recreation center for what is offered in your area.  Start today!