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May 2024: Mental Health and Physical Activity

a woman sitting cross-legged on an exercise map with a contemplative expression, two men in background doing same, ICHC logo

Mental Health and Physical Activity

In this post:

 

Introduction

If you’ve been struggling with a mental health disorder like depression or anxiety, you might be surprised (and deeply annoyed) to find that everyone around you seems to view going outside and exercising as some sort of cure-all. Maybe you’ve seen those social media posts with breathtaking views of mountains and inane captions like “this is my antidepressant.” Maybe you’re tired of people assuming that you just aren’t trying hard enough to be happy or feel “normal” whenever your mental health condition comes up in conversation.

This post is not supporting those opinions. If you and your doctor have decided you need medication as part of your mental health treatment regimen, then stick with that advice and keep taking the medication that makes up for the chemicals your body is not producing properly on its own – especially if you are not safe, happy, and healthy without them.

What this post is saying is that physical activity and exercise (not just going outside for “fresh air”) can help supplement and be an important part of your treatment regimen. This has entirely to do with the way that exercise helps your body produce needed chemicals and hormones, and not—and we cannot stress this enough—anything at all to do with some sort of imagined moral imperative that dictates the superiority of people who exercise versus people who do not.

We are also very aware that mental health conditions can pose barriers to exercise. Stick with us, and we’ll talk about that, too!

 

Why does exercise help?

Again, exercise can help produce needed chemicals and hormones that help balance your mood, and improving your physical health can help improve your mental health. Without going too deep into the science, we can tell you that there have been a lot of studies conducted with folks with mental health conditions just like yours that have drawn correlations between exercise and improvement in stress levels and the management of stress symptoms (an important factor to manage for a lot of different mental health conditions!) and in depression symptoms.

There a lot of different reasons for this! In some cases, the endorphins released during physical activity can help improve mood and alleviate symptoms. In others, it’s the focus on something other than stressors. In still others, it’s the long-term health benefits of reducing high blood pressure and other physical health problems that create a cascading effect throughout your body and mind that results in improved mental health.

Exercise can have immediate social and emotional impacts as well. You might find opportunities for social interaction connected to your new exercise activity, whether that’s just by passing people walking on the sidewalk or by joining an exercise group in person or online. You might also find that you gain a sense of accomplishment by meeting an exercise goal or challenge, no matter how small, and that can boost confidence and enjoyment of the rest of your day. Some days, that’s enough.

 

Tips for getting active within your limitations

Many people who struggle with depression or anxiety or other mental health conditions find that the biggest hurdle to get past is the initial energy it takes to get started on any given day. If you can, it can help to find a trusted accountability buddy who can show up at your door, literally or figuratively, and help reinforce the exercise portion of your treatment regimen in a positive and supportive way. Alternately, some people find that apps or social media can help them find a community that is supportive and friendly and provides the needed jolt of motivation.

It helps to sit down and think about your barriers and opportunities. What time of day or day of the week is your mood the worst? When is it best? What contributes to giving you energy that you can capitalize on to get even more energy through physical activity?

It also helps to start small and set manageable goals so you don’t get discouraged. If you don’t do much physical activity now, maybe start with five minutes of extra walking time each day, then increase to ten once that’s comfortable and routine. Maybe start with doing one exercise class, then another the next week, and then two the next week. Maybe you need to try a few different activities or exercises before you find one that you think you can stick with and that works with your schedule and your needs.

Sometimes it can help to talk about your plans with your therapist or counselor, too. They can be great resources for identifying and overcoming barriers, and for keeping you in the mindset that this is something you are doing as part of your treatment, not out of guilt or shame or whatever else.

If, on the other hand, you are struggling with physical limitations to exercise, here’s a handful of tips that might help, or at least get you thinking about what else could help:

  1. Talk to your doctor about what kind of exercise or physical activity is safe for you. This is important for your safety! Also, hearing a professional opinion can be reassuring, and they can point you toward physical therapy if that’s a viable option for you.
  2. Figure out your mobility limitations and how to work around them. If you use a wheelchair or standing too long prevents you from working out, there are books and videos online for seated or “chair” workouts that you can do to strengthen other parts of your body.
  3. If you have grip limitations, try wearable weights or body weight exercises to start with.
  4. If you have joint pain exacerbated by exercise, try searching for “low impact” exercise programs.
  5. If you have a plus-size body, try going online and searching for “gentle exercise for bigger bodies,” and pick a program or tutorial that shows people with your body type working out successfully. “Low impact” is also a good key term for you, too! Social media and online resources are a great way to find people who can relate to the same issues you might be experiencing.

 

Resources

Your primary care provider (that’s us at ICHC!) is your first stop for discussions about your health, including your mood and mental health, but also for exercise and physical activity advice and discussions about what is safe and effective for you. If you need more help or haven’t found a treatment regimen that works for you yet, they can refer you to a physical therapist, a mental health specialist, and/or a counselor or therapist.

You can also join any one of thousands of online and/or app-based communities dedicated to physical activity and even treatment and recovery from mental health conditions. We’ve mentioned this before on other posts, but the people you surround yourself with and talk to, even on social media, have a big influence on how you live your life. Make sure you’re surrounding yourself with positive messages for self-growth and actual helpful suggestions. That probably means avoiding people who think going outside is a magic cure for all mental health issues, but it might also mean avoiding people who will be critical and non-supportive of your exercise goals or your personal healthcare journey and positive choices backed up by your doctor or healthcare provider.

Questions? Call us today at 907-455-4567 to make an appointment with a primary care provider to talk about your health, exercise, or mood!

 

Author
ICHC snowflake logo The Quality Team @ ICHC The Quality department at ICHC brings you helpful information about your healthcare in Fairbanks and Healy, AK. We are proudly committed to ensuring high-quality "healthcare with a heart!"

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