Exercise is the New Prescription for Mental Health Problems
A new study advocates prescribing physical exercise to alleviate patient symptoms and could reduce the patients' time in acute facilities. It may also reduce reliance on psychotropic medications.
Physical activity may help a range of mental health and mood disorders, which include anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, suicidality, and acute psychotic episodes.
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David Tomasi is a lecturer at the University of Vermont, a psychotherapist, and an inpatient psychiatry group therapist at the University of Vermont Medical Center and lead researcher of this study. He notes "the general attitude of medicine is that you treat the primary problem first, and exercise was never considered to be a life or death treatment option. Now that we know it’s so effective, it can become as fundamental as a pharmacological intervention."
It's no secret that going to a psychiatric facility means you could be prescribed medications. Their approach is to alleviate the symptoms — not fix the problem. Natural remedies like physical exercise have been shown to alleviate symptoms such as anger, anxiety, and depression.
Tomasi estimates that only a handful of inpatient psychiatric hospitals in the United States provide a psychotherapist-supported gym facility. Instead, the classical psychotherapeutic and pharmacological approach is taken. They monitor to determine if the medication is working, and when you are ready to be discharged.
Tomasi collaborated with the University of Vermont Medical Center's Sheri Gates and Emily Reyns to build a gym exclusively for 100 patients in the medical center's inpatient psychiatry unit. They led and introduced a 60-minute structured exercise and nutrition education program into the patients' treatment plans.
They surveyed the patients on their mood, self-image, and self-esteem both before and after the exercise session. They wanted to gauge the effects of exercise on psychiatric symptoms.
Here's What They Found
The patients reported lower levels of many symptoms including anger, depression, and anxiety. They reported higher self-esteem and overall improved moods. The researchers found that 95 percent of the patients reported a mood improvement after their sweat session.
They found that 63 percent of the patients reported being happy or very happy — as opposed to neutral, sad, or very sad after exercise. An average of 91.8 percent of the patients reported that they were pleased with the way their bodies felt after the structured exercise routine.
“The fantastic thing about these results is that, if you’re in a psychotic state, you’re sort of limited with what you can do in terms of talk therapy or psychotherapy. It’s hard to receive a message through talk therapy in that state, whereas with exercise, you can use your body and not rely on emotional intelligence alone” explains Tomasi.
Other Health Benefits Physical Exercise
Getting active improves many different areas of your life. Many of us equate exercising to losing weight, but exercise offers you much more.
- Increased libido
- Better, more restorative sleep
- More endurance
- Lower stress
- You'll be in a better mood
- You'll have more energy and stamina
- Your mental alertness improves
- Your cardiovascular fitness improves
- Reduced cholesterol
What Type of Exercise?
It doesn't matter exactly what you do, but how you do it. The intensity level that you exercise determines how effective it is. The most health benefits come from a sedentary person becoming moderately active.
This is why someone who is overweight and starts exercising experiences results fast.
Choose some activities that you enjoy — strength training has been shown to help with anxiety and depression. Simply getting up and moving is the key to start. As you progress, you can do more, go faster, and lift more.
Before you jump into a rigorous training routine, talk to your health care provider and ask about any concerns you may have about your medications and becoming more active.
Finding something you enjoy doing is important if you want to remain consistent. There's a difference between dragging your butt all the way to the gym to lift if you don't want to versus playing some basketball with your coworkers even though you are sore from yesterday.
Start by simply walking around your neighborhood. Find a friend or take your dog for a 20 to 60-minute walk. Start taking walking meetings at work and invite friends to go hiking instead of sitting on the couch and eating pizza.
If you like being social, check out some local programs or find some exercises classes at your local gym to try.
We have plenty of workouts and exercise programs you could follow, but if that overwhelms you, here's a simple way to get some exercise.
The American College of Sports Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week, 75 minutes of vigorous activity, or a combination of both.
Lifting weights two to three times per week is ideal, but don't feel like you have to.
Try to be active on most days of the week — at least three to four days. Utilize a "talk test" when exercising to monitor your intensity levels. A moderate pace will slightly increase your heart rate and breathing, but you should still be able to talk normally and carry on a conversation.
Walking faster, on the other hand, you'll start to breathe harder and have difficulty talking. You'll be able to respond, but you may take a breath in between sentences. Vigorous exercise pushes you to the limit and would make it very hard to talk. Moderate intensity could be considered "somewhat hard," while vigorous intensity could be "hard" to "very hard."
Get active for around 30 to 60 minutes per day, you can break that down into smaller sessions, or knock it out in one go. Try to perform at least 10 minutes of exercise each session if you can.
Try brisk walking, cycling, swimming, hiking, or playing a local ball sport. Once you get acclimated to an active lifestyle, you may find other activities that interest you.
8 Things You Should Try
Whether you have been diagnosed or in a slump lately, you can feel helpless. Along with increasing your physical activity, here are eight other things you can try to improve your mental health symptoms.
#1 - Create a Routine
Something that helps me personally is getting into a routine. "If you're depressed, you need a routine," says Ian Cook, MD, psychiatrist and director of the Depression Research and Clinic Program at UCLA.
Depression can strip away the structure from your life and leaves you without a daily schedule. Ease into a schedule and get back on track.
#2 - Eat Healthier Foods
There's no magic food that can improve our mental health... but eating healthier can. Depression, anxiety, and other symptoms cause us to overeat and creates a terrible cycle.
Strive to eat more whole foods and learn how to cook.
#3 - Set Goals
The last thing you want to do when you are depressed or stressed is to think about your goals. You don't feel like you can accomplish anything and you definitely don't have the energy to try.
Start pushing back against your symptoms and create small daily goals for yourself. They can be as "meaningless" as you want — if checking the mail is something you struggle to do, it's a good goal. Find something that is achievable and can help improve your outlook on life.
As you feel better and get out of that rut, carry on the goal setting and start achieving more and more.
#4 - Sleep More
It can be hard to sleep when you can't turn your mind off, but not getting enough sleep makes it worse.
Start changing your lifestyle so that you have time to unwind before bed. Put down your phone, turn off the TV, and relax. Set alarms to go to bed and wake up at the same time — this helps your body get into a rhythm.
Keep your room dark and cold, get some nice pillows, and enjoy a solid night's rest.
#5 - Stay Involved
The first thing I want to do when I get depressed is to withdraw from life. You stop doing the basic responsibilities and you don't really care.
Instead, start taking responsibilities at home and work. Pushing yourself to achieve daily responsibilities can help you maintain a lifestyle that can fight off depression. Achieving so much will boost your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment.
Start small and work your way up.
#6 - Observe Your Negative Thoughts
It's impossible to stop all negative thoughts, but what about if you just observe them? We all hear "don't think negative thoughts," but no one really explains how or why. Once we start overthinking, we always jump to the worst conclusions.
Next time you think about something and it upsets you, or you get into the "everything I do turns to crap" phase, let the thoughts pass through, but don't dwell on them. Experience the feeling, but don't hold onto it.
We are supposed to feel all of our emotions... the problem is when we get stuck on negative emotion. Instead of dwelling over what your coworker said, how that guy cut you off in traffic, or how you hate this or that about yourself, let the thought pass through and move on.
It takes a lot of practice, but as you get better, you'll be able to feel an immediate sense of relief from the tension, stress, and overall sense of well-being.
#7 - Try Something New
Variety is the spice of life. Instead of driving the same way every day, eating the same foods, listening to the same music, and watching the same Netflix shows, try something different.
Go somewhere new, go walk around a thrift store, or invite your friend to go hiking. Trying something new will actually alter the level of the "feel good" chemical dopamine — it is associated with pleasure, learning, and enjoyment.
#8 - Have Fun
It's hard to have fun when you're having an episode. If nothing seems fun anymore, it's time to try to have fun. Plan something you used to enjoy, even if it feels like a chore.
Plan a date night, go to the movies with your best friend, go out with your significant other to that fancy restaurant you keep talking about. When you're depressed, your knack for enjoying life is gone.
You will need to relearn how to let loose and have fun, but once you do, things will be fun again.