Mental Health and Exercise-The Link in Taking Better Care of Our Minds and Bodies

May is National Mental Health Awareness Month in the United States. This is a time to spotlight and raise awareness about the importance of mental health and to stop the stigma associated with mental health disorders.  Mental health does not discriminate based on race, color, gender, or identity. Anyone can encounter the challenges of mental illness despite their background and social class. However, your concerns, how you understand and cope may be different.

According to the Health and Human Services Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 10% more likely to experience severe psychological distress. African Americans, like many minority communities, are also more likely to experience socioeconomic disparities such as lack of health, educational, social, and economic resources. These disparities may contribute to worsening mental health outcomes. About one in five or 43.8 million adults in the United States experiences a mental illness in a given year. Nearly one in five youth aged 13–18 experiences a severe mental health disorder at some point during their lifetime. 13% are children aged 8–15.

When you have depression or anxiety, exercise often seems like the last thing you want to do. Evidence suggests that exercise is not only essential for the maintenance of good mental health, but it can help treat chronic mental illness. Exercise appears to be as good as an existing pharmacological intervention for a variety of conditions. Mild to moderate depression, dementia, and anxiety are a few conditions where exercise has helped. Exercise has contributed in the reduction of cognitive issues in schizophrenia as well. It is reasonable to believe that exercise leads to better mental health in general, but make sure you speak with your mental health care provider first.

How?

Out of the 100 neurotransmitters working in the brain, Endorphins and Serotonin are two types of neurotransmitters that are responsible for feeling good when you exercise.

Serotonin is a mood-boosting neurotransmitter and is known as the “happy chemical.” Endorphins, which block pain to produce pleasure, Serotonin promotes pleasure itself. Research has shown that a lack of Serotonin in the brain for some individuals has been associated with depression, which may explain why the most commonly prescribed antidepressant medications are the ones that provide more Serotonin to the brain. Studies show that physical activity can improve brain serotonin levels. Understanding why exercise helps to improve your mood can be a powerful tool to get you to work out on those days when you would prefer to skip it. In other words: Exercise directly affects the brain.

Is Being Physically Active enough, or Should I have a Structured Exercise program?

Physical activity and exercise are different. Physical activity explained; is any activity that moves your body and requires energy. That can include household or leisure activities. Exercise is a planned, structured, and repetitive body movement to improve or maintain physical fitness.

The word “exercise” is not about running laps around the gym. Exercise can help you, gain confidence, get more social interaction, and cope healthily. Strength training or group fitness classes at your local gym is one example of exercise.

Find ways to increase small amounts of physical activity throughout the day. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Go for a short walk, or if you live close to your job, consider biking to work. Physical activity such as gardening, washing the car, or engaging in other less strenuous activities is also helpful.

A well-balanced diet, healthy sleep, gut health, along with exercise, and hydration equally affects our mental health and our physical health. Research has shown that individuals who have chronic metabolic illnesses such as diabetes, high blood pressure, or autoimmune disorders have a higher chance of being diagnosed with a mental health disorder such as depression or anxiety.

Remember that our bodies and minds act as one unit. See a health care professional if you are experiencing feelings of depression or anxiety. Taking better care of ourselves is mind, body and spirit.

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