Exercise is an Effective Treatment for Mental Illness

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In this essay I talk about some of the mental health benefits of exercise and how it can be used to help treat some mental illnesses.

Submitted: May 02, 2012

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Submitted: May 02, 2012




Exercise is an Effective Treatment for Mental Illness

In the United States about 25 percent of the population is suffering from a mental illness with about 50 percent suffering from one in their life time. (CDC Features) With such a high number of cases of mental illness it is very vital that patients get the best treatment possible.  This is why psychologists need all the tools they can to help treat mental illness and exercise can be a very important tool they can use. Most people are aware of the physical affects that occur to their body when they exercise, as they can see them occur. They notice that they lose weight, do not get out of breath as easily and gain energy. This is due to the improvement of their cardiovascular and respiratory systems, as well as an improvement in the overall function of their body. However, what most people do not realize is that there are very important mental health benefits that go along with exercise. Regular exercise improves ones mental health by improving cognitive function, increasing self-esteem, reducing stress, increasing mood, and reducing the symptoms of depression and anxiety. (Sharma, Madaan, and Petty 106) The improvement of mental health is provided by both psychological and physiological changes that occur in our bodies. It is a combination of these two that permits exercise to have a positive impact on our mental health. The mental health benefits of exercise provide psychologist with another tool to use in the treatment many different mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. To understand how exercise can be a beneficial to the treatment of mental illness it is important to understand how exercise can improve our mental health both physiologically and psychologically.

First off exercise has a major impact psychologically on one’s self-esteem. Self-esteem is related more closely to body image than any other single element of self (Fox 411-418). The old saying of, “If you look good, you feel good” can be applied in this situation. As a person exercises regularly they will have many physical benefits that accompany exercise and include weight loss, gain in muscle strength, and increased respiratory fitness. (Fox 411-418). With this improvement of the physical feature comes an improved perception of one’s self and therefore an increase in self esteem.( Fox 411-418) Another theory of how exercise can have a positive impact on self-esteem is based on mastery and self-determination (Fox 411-418). Exercise can become a way for a person to take control over their health behavior and body appearance (Fox 411-418). This empowerment of control can provide a trigger for a general sense of autonomy (Fox 411-418). In this case the physical changes are not as imperative as the empowerment that is realized by accomplishing these physical changes is (Fox 411-418). For a person it can feel good to have control over something in their life and regular exercise gives them control over their health and body image. Finally, there is a social aspect when it comes to improvement of self esteem. The joining of exercise groups and sports teams can provide social interaction and allow for social support (Fox 411-418). This social support will increase self-esteem as they get positive feedback from the people around them. Everybody feels good when somebody else around them notices a positive change and brings it to light. The improvement of self-esteem from exercise is a combination of these three things. The better self perception you have of yourself, the better self-esteem your will have. With body image so closely tied to self-esteem, exercise is a great way to improve your body image and consequently improve your self-esteem.

Another psychological impact the exercise can provide is a distraction for one’s mind and stops you from worrying so much. Constant worrying about stressors in a person life can lead to anxiety as well as depression. Exercise can provide distraction or “time out” from the stressors and worries of everyday life (Daley 266). During exercise a person’s mind can leave all cares and worries from the day behind and focus solely on the exercise task. This allows their mind a good break from any stressors that has been worrying them throughout the day. To continually worry can feed to the cycle of anxiety and depression. It can be seen that,  “the use of distracting activities as a means of coping with depression has been shown to have a more positive influence on the management of depression and to result in a greater reduction in depression than the use of more self-focused or introspective activities such as journal keeping or identifying positive and negative adjectives that describe one's current mood” (Craft and Perna 108) Therefore exercise as a distraction  has been a proven coping mechanism to help decrease the symptoms of depression. It can be a very successful coping mechanism for a lot of people and allows them time to take a deep breath and not worry.  

On top of these psychological changes that are produced by regular exercise there are also physiological changes that occur in the body. The most common physiological changes that people are aware of are the reduction of fat, improvement in the cardiovascular and respiratory system. These physiological changes can lead to an improved body image and increased self-esteem as stated above. However, additional to these most common physiological changes, there is an increased availability and release of neurotransmitters in the brain (Craft and Perna 108). These neurotransmitters include serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. (Craft and Perna 108) The levels of these neurotransmitters directly affect one’s mood and it has been shown in people that are depressed, the levels of these neurotransmitters are decreased. (Craft and Perna 108) Consequently, with exercise and the increase in their levels it seems the symptoms of depression can be reduced and an increase in mood is seen. Furthermore, there is also a release endogenous opiate during strenuous exercise (Fox 411-418). These opiates are usually released in the form of beta endorphins and cause the sensation of a runner’s high (Fox 411-418). These endorphins have positive effects on mood. It causes the body to have a sense of euphoria and decrease the symptoms of depression.

With all of these positive mental health affects that exercise has, exercise can be used to help treat patients with mental illness. It can be used as a tool to help treat people with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and many more disorders. The way in which exercise can be employed will vary with each patient depending on the severity of their disease and their physical ability. A program specific for each patient is the key to using exercise correctly, when it comes to treating a mental illness. As well, people with varying disorders will have exercise used in different ways.  Two major mental illnesses that have shown positive results from the treatment with exercise are depression and anxiety.

Depression in the United States affects about 9.1 percent of the population. (CDC Features) It is such a prevalent mental illness but still is very difficult to diagnose and treat. That is why it is very important to make sure patient that are diagnosed with it get the best treatment possible. For patients that are diagnosed with depression exercise is used to help relieve the symptoms of depression that they are having. Some of the symptoms of depression include feeling hopelessness, loss of interest, loss of energy, sleep changes and appetite or weight changes. As stated above, exercise can be used as a distraction from the daily stressors people experience and serve as a coping mechanism. (Craft and Perna 108) Additionally, epidemiology studies have shown that there is an inverse relationship between physical activity and mental health. (Babyak, Bluementhal, and et al 633) As a result, people that are physical inactive are more likely to show sign of depression than physically active people.

Exercise has been employed by many psychologists in depressed patients and many studies have been conducted on its effectiveness.  In a study conducted by Babyak, Bluementhal et al., 156 adults that suffered from major depressive disorder were surveyed. They were split into three groups; one group was given a sixteen week exercise program, one was given regular pharmacology treatment and the third was given a combination of both. (Babyak, Bluementhal, and et al 633) Once the exercise program was complete all three groups showed a significant decrease in depression symptoms. (Babyak, Bluementhal, and et al 633). There was not any statistically significant difference between these three groups. (Babyak, Bluementhal, and et al 633) This study shows that exercise can be successful in the treatment of depression. The results showed that it can be just as successful as pharmacology treatment can be. One important thing to remember is that in order for a relapse to not occur, exercise must remain a regular part of the patients’ life. If the exercise is stopped, the patient could fall back into depression and be no better off than they were before.

The second major mental disorder that can be successfully treated with exercise is anxiety. Many people who have anxiety disorders become anxious in various situations for no apparent reason. Anxiety disorders are the very common mental illness people in the United States deal with everyday. Everybody in their life will at one time or another will feel anxious. It is acceptable in a small amount and can actually be beneficial. On the other hand, in people with anxiety disorders it becomes too prevalent in their lives and can affect their daily functions.

Most patients who suffer from anxiety disorders are given medications to help treat their symptoms and these medications have proved successful. However, another treatment that can help reduce the dependency on some of these anxiety medications is exercise. Some of the typical exercise that patients will participate in to reduce their anxiety are exercises that promote relaxation. The most common exercises are yoga or some type meditation exercise. This allows patients time to slow down their breathing and to calm their mid. This allows them to reduce the feelings of anxiety that they may be experiencing. On top of this, “experimental studies of both acute and chronic exercise of vigorous intensities have consistently shown a reduction in state (temporary or transient) anxiety” (Taylor, Sallis, and Needle 197) Not only can relaxation exercises help to reduce anxiety but vigorous exercise has been shown to have a positive effect. Actually, “in several studies, acute exercise was as effective in reducing anxiety as meditation” (Taylor, Sallis, and Needle 197) The reduction of stress by exercise can be, “attributed to diversion; social reinforcement; experience of mastery; and improved response to stress through reduced muscle tension, heart rate, skin conductance, and catecholamine, glucocorticoid, or lactate production” (Taylor, Sallis, and Needle 197) It is not just one thing that exercise contributes to reduce anxiety but it is a combination of both the physiological and psychological affects that are produced.

It is very important to note that exercise can be an effective treatment for many symptoms of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses but should be used in combination with other treatments as well. This is because, “many clinical patients will previously have been mostly sedentary or they will not possess the psychological skills or knowledge to adhere to a regular exercise program and therefore they will need more than exercise alone.” (Daley 266) It will be difficult for many patients to adhere to an exercise program because they were not active in their lives before and will be difficult for them maintain a constant exercise regime. It is important that patients, “be offered in conjunction with exercise counseling that is aimed at equipping individuals with skills, knowledge and confidence so they feel able to participate in physical exercise on a regular basis throughout the rest of their lives.”(Daley 266) The counseling should focus on giving patients some physical and psychological tools that they will need to continue to get the positive psychological results from exercise after their treatment is complete. (Daley 266) In order to maintain the positive results they have gotten from exercise, patients will have to continue to exercise throughout their lives or face the possibility that they fall back into depression or anxiety.

Exercise has so many positive effects on the human body and they are not just limited to physical health benefits.  Exercise also has numerous mental health benefits that include; increased self-esteem, reduced stress, increased mood, and reduced symptoms of depression and anxiety. (Sharma, Madaan, and Petty 106)  It achieves these mental health benefits by a combination of psychological and physiological changes that occur in the body. The major psychological effects come from the increase in self-esteem due to; the improved perception of one`s self, mastery and self-determination, and positive social support. (Fox 411-418) Exercise can also serve as a distraction from the stressors in daily life and provide patient`s with a coping mechanism for symptoms of depression. (Daley 266) The physiological affects stem from the increase levels of neurotransmitters, and endogenous opiates that are released in the body. (Craft and Perna 108; Fox 411-418) These mental health benefits are what make exercise a useful tool for psychologist to use when they treat patients with depression and anxiety. It has been proved successful in the treatment of both of these conditions. It is important to remember though that exercise should not be used solely on its own but in conjunction with other treatment, such as psychotherapy, medication and counseling. When used correctly exercise can be very effective to lessen the symptoms of depression and anxiety, resulting in an overall increase in mental health for patients.



Works Cited

An Estimated 1 in 10 U.S. Adults Report Depression. March, 31 2011 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Web. 10 April, 2012 <http://www.cdc.gov/Features/dsDepression/>.

Babyak, Michael, james Bluementhal, et al. "Exercise Treatment for Major Depression: Maintenance of Therapeutic Benefit at 10 Months." Psychosomatic Medicine the Journal of Behavioral Medicine. 62.5 (2000): 633-638. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.psychosomaticmedicine.org/content/62/5/633.full>.

Craft, Lynette, and Frank Perna. "The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed." Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 6.3 (2004): 104-111. Web. 3 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/>.

Daley, Amanda. "Exercise Therapy and Mental Health in Clinical Populations: is Exercise Therapy a Worthwhile InterventionÉ." Advances in Psychiatric Ttreatment. 8. (2002): 262-270. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. <http://apt.rcpsych.org/content/8/4/262.full.pdf>.

Fox , Kenneth. "The Influence of Physical Activity on Mental Well-Being." Public Health Nutrion. 2. (199): 411-418. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S1368980099000567>.

Sharma, Ashish, Vishal Madaan, and Frederick Petty. "Exercise for Mental Health." Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry. 8.2 (2006): 106. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/>.

Taylor, C, James Sallis, and Richard Needle. "The Relation of Physical Activity and Exercise to Mental Health."Public Health Reports. 100.2 (1985): 195-202. Web. 15 Apr. 2012. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1424736/pdf/pubhealthrep00100-0085.pdf>.

U.S. Mental Illness Surveillance report. September, 7 2011 Center for Disease Control and Prevention. March 21, 2012 <http://www.cdc.gov/Features/MentalHealthSurveillance/>

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