Optimizing Mental Health

“Exercise gives you endorphins.  Endorphins make you happy.  And happy people just don’t kill their husbands”.  While Reece Witherspoon might not have appeared so bright in Legally Blonde, she made a good point.  Exercise does make people happy.  While it can’t guarantee marital success, there are definitely numerous mental health benefits associated with regular physical activity.

According to the Canadian Psychiatric Association, around 47% of Canadians surveyed reported that they are “severely stressed several times a week”.  Stress has become a natural part of our fast paced and demanding culture.

Recent research of the Health Statistics Division of Statistics Canada has revealed that stress may be a precursor to poor health in many cases.  Adults who experienced high stress in 1994/95 were more likely to develop a variety of chronic conditions by 2000/01 including chronic bronchitis or emphysema, back problems, stomach or intestinal ulcers, arthritis and rheumatism.  Men were also more likely to develop heart disease while women were more prone to asthma and migraines.

Depression has also become a rising health concern in Canada. In 1998/99, Statistics Canada reported that almost 1.1 million Canadians who were aged 12 or older (4% of population) have experienced symptoms of depression within the last year.  This is characterized by a depressed mood and/or lack of interest in things and may include appetite or sleep disturbance, difficulty concentrating, decreased energy, feelings of worthlessness and/or suicidal thoughts. By 2000/01, 7.1% of the Canadian population had experienced major symptoms of depression and suffered at least one major depressive episode within the last twelve months.  A Community Health Survey completed in 2002 found that individuals suffered as commonly from major depression as the other leading chronic conditions, including heart disease and diabetes.   

The Canadian Fitness and Lifestyle Research Institute (CFLRI) promotes regular physical activity as an excellent way to treat and prevent mental health problems.  In fact, exercise seems comparable to psychotherapy in the treatment of milder cases of depression and anxiety.

Positive Mental Health Benefits Associated with Regular Physical Activity include (but are not limited to):

  • Reduced feelings and negative effects related to stress: frustration, depression, anger and fatigue

  • Increased mood elevating hormones (endorphins) which increase feelings of relaxation, energy, alertness and physical performance

  • Transformed negative emotions and energy into feelings of excitement and an overall sense of wellbeing

In order to maximize the positive benefits of exercise on mental health, the CFLRI states:

  • the activity must be continuous and rhythmical (e.g. running, biking)      

  • the activity must be of sufficient duration to create mild to moderate physical stress on the individual (e.g. thirty minutes, however, this may be as little as one minute for someone with a heart or respiratory condition)

A single exercise bout often leads to a reduction in anxiety for 2 – 4 hours.  While quiet rest, relaxation and psychotherapy show similar benefits, physical activity has demonstrated longer-lasting effects.  Anxiety levels decrease after individuals have pursued a physical activity program for a minimum of ten weeks while those who participate for longer than fifteen weeks experience the most benefits.

Exercise is an excellent way to reduce stress, feel good about yourself, take care of your body and deal with the hectic pace of everyday life.  So, treat yourself.  Grab a friend and enjoy a walk in Prince’s Island Park, jog along the Bow River or come for a swim and don’t forget to visit the hot tub!

Charlene Dobb, B.Sc., B.PHE., AFLCA
Adapted & Wellness Trainer

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