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Could Exercise Be The Prescription You Need to Improve Your Mental Health?

Forget the “take two pills and call me in the morning.”

Exercise saved my life. If I look back on the connect-the-dot moments of my life, there are direct correlations between the peaks and valleys and the role exercise has played in helping me not just cope but thrive.

I was never the athletic kid, but by the time I was 12, exercise and I had forged an unbreakable bond. A couple of years earlier, when I was just 10, my father died. Suddenly. One minute he was there, the next gone. A massive coronary took him out.

After several years of crying, and lots of internalized grief, I strapped on running shoes one day, sprinted until I stopped crying, and never looked back. I had discovered a secret weapon to deal with sadness — exercise.

Since then, exercise has helped me recover from an eating disorder, deal with miscarriages, cope with sobriety and get through divorce. Most importantly, it helps me be a better parent.  I run, teach fitness, lift weights and do yoga to be healthy and fit, but also because it keeps darkness at bay.

“The benefits of exercise for treating depression and anxiety (Here are 3 scenarios to help you cope.) are increasingly recognized worldwide,” says Dr. Gina Di Giulio, a clinical psychologist and director of psychology at Medcan in Toronto. “The American Psychiatric Association recently changed its guidelines to include exercise as a treatment for managing mood. Several studies suggest exercise alone can be an effective treatment for depression, and can be more effective than antidepressants for mild to moderate levels of depression.” That means for those who are hesitant to pop pills, exercise can be an effective drug-free way of managing mental health.

Just ask Tina Panos. The Canadian Armed Forces soldier developed PTSD after returning from a tour of Afghanistan and couldn’t understand what was happening: “I was filled with fury,” she recalls.

Luckily, at the time, she was playing hockey and began to recognize those immediate benefits of exercise. “After a game, I felt truly amazing,” she recalls. Desperate to hold onto that feeling, Panos started going to the gym again. “This is when things started to take a turn for the better. The minute I step inside the gym, all my troubles are left at the door. Whether it is cardio, weights or punching a heavy bag, my energy is directed in a positive way and I leave feeling better than when I arrived. Fitness is the most under-prescribed therapy there is.”

“The benefits of exercise for treating depression and anxiety are increasingly recognized worldwide.”  – Dr. Gina Di Giulio

Is an exercise prescription the answer for better mental health?

In fact, there is a strong movement to prescribe exercise for mental health, and it is one that Dr. Di Giulio hopes will grow. “Exercise should be widely prescribed to patients for prevention and treatment management of mental health issues. Research studies have evaluated moderate to more intense levels of exercise, defined as 45-60 minutes of continuous cardiovascular exercise, 4-5 times per week. This appears to suggest that exercise is only effective at this rate, but this is not necessarily true,” says Dr. Di Giulio. “Aiming for four to five times per week might be too overwhelming for many people as a starting point — any exercise, even if just for a few minutes, can be helpful.” Read on for an exercise prescription for five of the major health issues plaguing Canadian women today.

According to a 2012 study by the American College of Sports Medicine, any exercise is better than none. Studies show that active people are less likely to be depressed and both aerobic exercise and resistance training can be effective.

How exercise works is both simple and complex, says Dr. Jennifer Heisz, associate professor in the department of kinesiology at McMaster University. “Exercising activates the stress response to help the body rise to the challenge of the workload. But interestingly, as you exercise, you regulate your body’s response system that deals with stress and mental health, too.”

An exercise prescription can help produce mood-boosting chemicals during and after exertion.

Serotonin, dopamine, noradrenaline and endorphins are released by exercise, all of which are protective factors against mood and anxiety disorders. Serotonin is the “feel good” chemical, which plays a role in regulating mood; low levels are implicated in depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder and panic attacks. Dopamine — the “reward” chemical — helps people feel a sense of accomplishment after finishing exercise, which boosts self-esteem. Noradrenaline helps the brain deal with stress and anxiety by triggering the “fight or flight” response, when required.

All of these chemicals combined produce the feeling of happiness. “Exercise helps you become more resilient, helps you feel better able to cope, and repeated exercise regulates the stress symptoms. You regulate your body and your mind’s reactions,” says Dr. Heisz.

Madeleine Greey knows how exercise has helped her be resilient. When her daughter, Krystal, was born with Down Syndrome, Greey sought out an outlet for the additional stress of parenting: a fitness class in a community hall. That class helped her forge strong friendships and eventually led her to discover running and yoga. “My 8-year-old daughter would say, ‘Mommy, time to work out’ if I was getting cranky or bossy: everyone in the family knew that exercise helped my mental health.”

When her husband, Don, was diagnosed with terminal cancer seven years ago, and Greey became his major caregiver, “I had to run — fast. He died three months later, and the grief was sudden and crippling. Running relieved some of the trapped feelings — it helped me vent, while yoga offered a modicum of peace. (Find out which type of yoga suits you best.) Often, I would run with a friend — talking it out was just as important as running.”

One element of exercise that is key to better mental health: the social connection.

After Carmel Kyte was diagnosed with breast cancer, she met a woman who suggested she join a dragon boat racing team made up of breast cancer survivors in the West Island of Montreal.  “The minute I walked on that dock and met the team, I was welcomed with such encouragement — I was hooked. It helps build your upper body strength, you work as a team and paddle in synchronicity, laughing and crying together. It helps us rebuild our endurance after treatment, and you look around the boat and know that everyone has been where you have been.”

Whether it is walking, running, swimming, or dragon boat racing, exercising is the cheapest and most efficient drug on the market for mental health. “Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health,” says Dr. Di Giulio. “We know the benefits that exercise can have on physical health, such as improving cardiovascular health or regulating diabetes, but we don’t put enough emphasis on the benefits of exercise on mental health, which is just as important. There is no ‘health’ without mental health, and it’s time for all healthcare practitioners to emphasize the benefits of exercise on both.”

Next, check out our list of the best fitness studios in Canada. And before joining your next workout program, make sure you know these 8 tips.

Originally published in Best Health

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