Exercise helps improve mental health

Exercise can serve as a viable remedy to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety.

Jessi Zook

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Exercise is not only a useful tool for students’ overall mental health, but it can also aid in treating depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses with which many students struggle.

Psychology teacher Teri Rodgers said exercise works differently than other strategies used to calm anxiety, such as meditation.

“When you’re anxious, you’re physiologically very aroused. This can make it difficult for you to meditate because it requires you to calm yourself,” she said.

Exercise is different because it matches where a student is with his or her physiological arousal.  In other words, there’s no need to calm yourself down before exercising.

According to the American Psychological Association, the physiological responses to anxiety are an innate response previously used in our fight-or-flight situations.  People may experience sweating, dizziness and an unusual heart rate.  Anxious people often respond to physical symptoms of anxiety with fear.

Exercise produces similar responses as anxiety without the fear.  When anxious people exercise, they’re able to associate these physical side effects with something other than fear.  It’s an effective strategy to relearn how to respond to anxiety.

Senior Nora Cahill agreed with the benefits of exercise.  “When I run I’m able to clear my head.  It’s a really good thing to do when I’m stressed.  It offers a break from everything else that I might be dealing with,” she said.

Kinetic Wellness faculty member, Jennifer Tricoli, also said, “Exercise relieves tension and stress and releases endorphins.”  These endorphins aid in anxiety relief and act as natural pain-relievers giving the body overall positive feelings that are similar to anti-anxiety medication.

These endorphins and neurotransmitters  released during exercise are also an effective treatment for mild to moderate depression.  “The release of epinephrine and serotonin allow us to biologically feel more content,” Rodgers said.

Biologically, exercise has other benefits besides the release of chemicals into the brain.  “It promotes neural growth, reduced inflammation, and new activity patterns that promote feelings of calm and well-being,” Tricoli said.

All of these changes in the brain allow people facing depression to think and feel differently than they otherwise would.

Yet, the benefits of exercise aren’t purely biological, according to Kinetic Wellness faculty member Carrie Sowa.  “There’s often a community piece to exercise.  It allows you to feel like you have a supportive, friendly community to exercise with, whether it be through going on a walk with a group or going to a yoga class with friends.”  Sowa also said that this community component can encourage people to continue exercising and get into a habit of it, even if it may be difficult for them to do so.

Exercise plays an important role in people’s self-esteem, according to Tricoli.  “Just by exercising you feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you’ll feel a sense of achievement.”  It gives people an explicit measurement of growth and achievement, which can be an effective motivator.  Increased self-esteem can play a significant part in treating mental illnesses.

Tricoli said that Kinetic Wellness classes offer much needed exercise during the day, so students will get the benefits despite busy schedules.

“In twenty-eight minutes students can get their heart rate up in their target heart rate zone, and, depending on the class, work on their muscular strength and endurance all while having fun.”

It’s much easier to prioritize exercise when you enjoy it.  “The key is to find something that you like and that you want to be a part of.  Then you’ll look forward to it and follow through with it,” Sowa said.

And when students know the benefits of exercise, they’re more likely to make time for it, Rodgers said.  “As kids get older, they begin making their own choices on how they’re spending their time.  If kids understand the benefits of what they’re doing, they’re able to make more educated decisions.”

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