The physical benefits of exercise have been undisputed and rehashed, re-examined, and touted as the best preventative form of activity for everything from cancer to heart disease. But increasingly, as our physical wellness deteriorates, we are also noticing that an increasing number of people are being diagnosed with mental health issues.
For a few decades, there have been those who claim that physical fitness is as important for your mind as it is for your body, but researchers are just getting around to proving a causal link between physical and mental wellness. From there, they will be able to begin developing a hypothesis about why it is that exercise is just as good for our minds as it is for our bodies.
Serious research on the link between exercise and improving mental wellness started picking up in the 1980s, and a survey of the studies over the last 20 years shows that there is a link between regular, aerobic exercise and certain affective disorders. Two affective disorders that have garnered increasing attention in the recent past have been anxiety disorders and depression in adults. Treated primarily with drugs and therapy, the effects of exercise on these two disorders have been studied as a possible supplementary treatment option.
Anxiety disorders affect approximately 7% of North Americans today. Anxiety disorders can be experienced in several different forms, including panic attacks, post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, or generalized anxiety disorder. Anxiety is commonly treated with a combination of medication and therapy. In a survey of studies done over the last twenty years, results point toward several different links between anxiety and regular exercise.
The best benefits were seen in subjects who were high in anxiety, but who were not very active at the outset. Subjects engaged in regular aerobic exercise (three or more times per week, with better results with more frequency) for an extended period of time (at least 10 weeks, with more benefits seen the longer subjects stuck to the program). Subjects were observed to have a drop in their anxiety levels for up to 6 hours after their exercise sessions, at which time their anxiety levels would rise again.
Another affective disorder that is being more commonly diagnosed is depression, which affects up to 5% of the North American population. Depression is often characterized by symptoms of physical and mental fatigue, feelings of intense fear and melancholy, irritability, lack of concentration, feelings of hopelessness, and even in extreme cases, thoughts of suicide. People who suffer from depression also see an improvement in their condition in the period following an aerobic workout (as opposed to a workout that involved flexibility or resistance training) that is performed regularly for an extended period of time. Some studies have even shown that the benefits of exercise for clinically depressed individuals can begin in the first few sessions.
The exact reasons for the change in mood or general affect is still up for debate. One hypothesis is that the chemicals your brain produces that give you the slightly euphoric feeling lead to an overall lift in one’s mood. Exercise may stimulate endorphins, or chemicals called norepinephrine or serotonin, which lead to the condition known as “runner’s high” that many athletes experience following rigorous activity.
There are other factors that are influenced by exercise, and may have an effect on a person’s affect. One is a change in how a person sees him- or herself. If periods of depression or anxiety are exacerbated by a person’s negative self-image, then the physical benefits of exercise may be a psychological factor in easing symptoms. Weight loss and an increase in general health may promote not only a better self-image, but also aid in improving health problems related to a sedentary lifestyle.
Another variable linked to regular exercise that may contribute to an improvement in affective disorders is the promotion of a more restful sleep. Regular exercisers are shown to experience longer periods of restful sleep than those who do not engage in regular physical activities. Regular, restful sleep is a factor in maintaining positive mental health.
Mind And Body
For years, the western medical establishment has treated the mind and body as very separate entities. Bodies are treated for their ailments, and the mind for theirs, with little consideration for the possibility that one cannot be effectively treated without affecting the other. With all of these studies, one will eventually ask themselves why exercise, which can be as effective as therapy in managing some symptoms of anxiety or depression, is not regularly integrated into treatment plans for affective disorders. This mind/body split is one of the major factors.
Perhaps the reason that exercise is not prescribed regularly as an important part of a treatment plan is due simply to a lack of knowledge about research in the area in the medical field. Another reason could be biases held by the medical establishment based on the traditional means of treatment, namely drugs and therapy.
The western world has grown up in a pharmaceutical culture in which we are much more apt to find a chemical to fix us than exert the effort of a more involved road. If a pill will fix us, why not take that twice a day instead of running for half an hour every day? It is certainly easier. The problem arises when our dependence on drugs is affected by their availability, our financial means to attain them, and the side effects that they have on other aspects of our personalities.
This is not to say that physical fitness is a cure-all for any ailment or condition—physical, psychological, affective, or otherwise. But using physical fitness as a part of a well-balanced treatment plan that can include nootropics drug or emotional therapy, among the other options being offered by such fields as homeopathy, nutrition, and naturopathy, can be a good alternative to depending on just one avenue of self-care.
The causes and solutions of affective disorders are as varied as the individuals who struggle with them every day, and anyone who is affected by mental health issues have a better chance of recovery when they consider all of their options and do what is right for them.