Now I am not trying to discount that these are real issues that people face which can have devastating impacts on a person’s quality of life. Yet, it seems liked more often than not, my classmates all had a cocktail of pills they had to take for these issues. I felt like one of the few kids at the school who didn’t have a daily medication to take. Clearly I had missed the bus on what was cool, as if mental disease and disorders were considered trendy and you weren’t otherwise considered special if you didn’t have to take drugs for your unique “condition” or had I?
Many anti-depressant medications include a “Warning, this pill my cause thoughts of suicide in children and young adults.” WTF?? Isn’t the idea supposed to be to improve the symptoms of depression, not make it worse? In addition to a host of other side effects, an important thing to consider about these treatments, and western medicine in general is that it only treats the symptoms. Thus you can take the medication all your life, but is it going to fix the cause and thus end the disease for you in the long run?
The current view of our society in general is that the body and the mind are separate. That we can treat them as separate halves of a whole. But that’s simply too easy. Let’s take depression for example. Whenever you see a commercial for an anti-depressant, you’ll see these cute little animations about how depression causes a chemical imbalance in the brain that makes you depressed. It’ll then show you how the drug being advertised can fix your depression by balancing out said chemical imbalance. Simple right?
If depression is purely the result of a physiological imbalance, then why is it considered a “mental” health issue? Because the physiological responses are just another symptom that exasperates the initial cause and making the overall conditioning growing increasingly worse. Depression has many causes, everything from chronic stress, traumatic life changes, physical and mental abuse, genetics, medications, the list goes on and on.
Exercise has been shown to “balance” out the chemical imbalance created by many mental disorders, including depression, anxiety, ADHD and such. (1, 2, 3) Treating the physiological imbalance that is either created by or causes such mental health issues but it also has an impact from the cognitive (mental) side of the disorder as well. By helping to release stress, anxiety and allowing the brain to rewire itself in addition to therapy practices. It can also improve self-esteem, confidence and self-efficacy; which are further improved through regular exercise.
The rise of diagnoses for mental disorders is not surprising as the number of overweight and obese people continue to climb. Our increasingly sedentary population with an over abundance of food, increased work load and increased stress, has helped to set the stage for mental disorders to start to have a truly substantial impact on our quality of life. Taking a dedicated 30-60 minutes every day and using it toward consistent exercise can help turn the tide for a person to not just cope with, but have a firm grasp on their own mental health.
In addition to releasing the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. Which if you remember from your Zoloft commercial (not a paid endorsement) are the neurotransmitters that when, out of balance, can lead to symptoms of depression. While anti-depressants tend to treat each one of these imbalances individually, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to improve the production, balance and impact of all 3 neurotransmitters together. In addition to a host of other hormones and neurotransmitters that aren’t covered by your doctor’s prescription or a commercial.
Stress can cause anxiety, anxiety creates physical tension which manifests itself into everything from high blood pressure, increased heart rate, tense muscles, trouble breathing and the onset of panic attacks and hyper ventilation. This can lead up to negative thoughts of self-doubt, fear, lack of confidence and worry which only feed back into the stress and make the problem worse. In the worst of episodes, you might think you’re having a heart attack, even if there is nothing wrong with your heart. A common thing a good-intentioned friend might tell you is simply to relax. But it’s not that easy, if we could just let ourselves relax, there wouldn’t stress in the first place right?
Stress increases in part by a hormone called Cortisol which is a hormone that activates your sympathetic nervous system. In short, when you feel the physical symptoms of anxiety like I described above, you will find your good friend Cortisol is there helping to cause it. Cortisol is not entirely bad however, it plays a key role in your “Flight or Fight” ability to sense danger and your response to it. For example, if you see a bear in the woods and it stands up on it’s hind legs toward you, are you going to try and run or are you going to confront the bear? Your “Flight or Fight” instinct is what helps you make that decision.
So to sum up, when confronted by a bear, Cortisol is good. When you are dealing with the physical manifestations of anxiety due to chronic stress, Cortisol is bad.
When you exercise, you contract and relax muscles, your heart rate increases and so does your blood flow. In addition to increasing production of all those feel good neurotransmitters that are now flowing through your nervous system and increasing the activation of your sympathetic nervous system, that includes the release of Cortisol. Often times the body's acute response to exercise is mistaken for that of a panic attack, which if you suffer from chronic anxiety is definitely not fun. While it takes a lot of time and mental will to overcome those feelings, once you engage in a regular exercise program, you'll find that exercise can, in fact, help reduce chronic anxiety.
Within your tendons and muscles themselves, you have structures called "Muscle Spindles" which are basically sensory receptors that are sensitive to changes in muscle length. These are good because they keep your muscles from ripping your tendons out of your bone and causing you to tear yourself apart. Essentially when you contract a muscle, the muscle pulls on the tendon, which pulls on the bone and allows you to move. The muscle spindle, helps you to regulate the force in which you move so that you don't inadvertently hurt yourself by pulling to hard. In addition, the muscle spindles are what holds your tension in your muscle. Tight muscles can happen due to challenging workouts, stress, anxiety, sickness or anything else really and is often a physical manifestation of those issues. When you exercise, however, such as cardiovascular exercise or stretching. You are physically engaging your muscle spindles to release the tension. This is why, when you are particularly sore after a workout, it is good to go for a walk, run, swim, bike ride or other low intensity activity. Not only does it help increase blood flow to repair your muscle tissue, but it releases the tension.
In the end, while exercise certainly isn't a "cure all" for any mental health conditions, it is certainly beneficial toward preventing and treating mental illness, it should be apart of everybody's daily routine, especially for kids. Yet with our increasingly sedentary habits and modern conveniences, in addition to paranoia of our current socio-political climate. It is very challenging for kids and adults to find their recess where they can release and express themselves physically. It is very important that we make it a part of our life.