The health benefits of daily physical activity and vigorous exercise have been well established in research literature as effective treatment for a wide range of diseases. As a prevention strategy, the physiological benefits of exercise cannot be understated. It is now known that genetics only predicts 25 percent of future health, while the remaining 75 percent is a result of lifestyle and environmental factors. The relative risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes and some cancers can be significantly reduced with as little as 2 to 2.5 hours of exercise per week, lowering even further with more time spent engaging in aerobic activity. It should come as no surprise that exercise is also a powerful modulator of mood and mental health disorders. Each May, in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, health educators endeavor to reduce the stigma around mental illness by highlighting successful strategies to reduce symptoms and prevent exacerbations of this complex category of diseases. This year, the Fitness #4Mind4Body campaign is advocating for the power of exercise to significantly improve symptoms of disordered thinking, anxiety and poor self-esteem. Adopting a physical fitness routine may be one of the best tools available to those struggling with psychological disorders.
The News is Not Great
Sadly, it has become commonplace to learn of another mass shooting, terrorist act and episode of extreme societal violence in the news today. Mental Health America, a non-profit established in the early 1900s, reports that 18 percent of adults and upwards of 8.2 percent of youth in the United States suffer from mild to serious mental illness. The social stigma of a psychological diagnosis continues to be a barrier to reporting, and therefore, these statistics don’t accurately tell the whole story. Rates of depression among youth have escalated over the past five years, warranting renewed attention to look for new areas of prevention among this demographic. Unfortunately, mental disorder medications like SSRIs, antipsychotics and anxiolytics often cause undesirable side effects like weight gain, impotence and lethargy, which combine to further compromise self-confidence and self-esteem. For these reasons, and for a variety of other physical and psychological benefits, exercise can make all the difference in the successful management of a mental illness.
Co-morbidity Complicates Treatment
The problem of chronic disease, obesity and mental illness also tend to go hand-in-hand. For instance, diabetes is two to three times more likely in people with schizophrenia than in the general population. Chronic stress overwhelms the ability of the adrenal system to adapt to consistent levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which is then perpetuated by fat tissue throughout the body. Over time, cortisol triggers gluconeogenesis, a process whereby the liver releases excess sugar into the bloodstream to be used for energy. In the absence of metabolic need, the excess sugar is stored as fat, making weight gain inevitable. Therefore, a vigorous daily fitness routine can combat the negative effects of elevated cortisol levels and create healthy adaptations to stress. Increasing the volume of oxygen-rich blood being delivered to all the organs, stimulating circulatory efficiency and excretion of toxins from the blood, all have far-reaching benefits for mental health.
Data Boasts Multiple Benefits of Exercise
Several studies have demonstrated improved psychological adaptation with regular exercise in the mentally ill. One study in particular showed several benefits, including:
• Reduced reactivity of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which is the mechanism responsible for production and distribution of cortisol throughout the body
• Changes in abnormal levels of specific neurotransmitters like serotonin and endorphins
• Anti-anxiety effects from atrial natriuretic peptide, a cardiac hormone that lowers blood pressure and controls electrolyte balance
• Normalization of reduced levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is both neuroprotective and plays a role in brain plasticity, the ability of brain tissue to build new neuronal connections
• Lastly, exercise improves self-esteem, body image and coping strategies fostering feelings of self-efficacy
Workplace Wellness Increases Opportunities for Movement
At Navitas Organics, our employee Wellness program adheres to a holistic approach to overall well-being that places a strong emphasis on exercise as a primary strategy to enhance mental health. Although every small business has its challenges, and employees are tasked with a variety of roles and responsibilities, we offer a flexible working environment where opportunities for physical activity are accessible throughout the day. Fitness challenges similar to #4Mind4Body are initiated throughout the year to inspire healthy behaviors and interrupt long hours spent in front of the computer. With our corporate partnership with Yogaworks, we aim to support positive coping strategies to combat stress through the adoption of a mind-body practice that helps employees release tension, while also engaging in a physical practice multiple times throughout the week. While 80 percent of companies are reported to offer some form of Wellness program today, incorporating on-site fitness is integral to addressing stress in the workplace. In doing so, companies can play an important role in the prevention of mental illness by including physical activity in their Wellness model.
Despite the fact that most people will agree that exercise is good for us, it may not be completely understood just how effective it is at fighting disease. As the science continues to demonstrate, consistent vigorous exercise combined with a healthy diet serves as the best medicine we have available in order to live well into our older years. For those suffering from mental illness, adopting a fitness routine in conjunction with the right combination of medications will improve both the progression of the disease as well as the quality of daily life.