For the Health of It—Get Moving to Improve Your Mental Health

 

 

Margaret Danilovich

Dr. Margaret Danilovich is CJE SeniorLife’s Senior Director of the Leonard Schanfield Research Institute, our in-house research division. In this position, Margaret oversees all of the research and quality improvement efforts throughout CJE’s comprehensive network of programs and services for older adults and their families.

One year into COVID-19, we are experiencing a parallel pandemic—a mental health crisis contributed to by months of isolation, the loss of nearly a half million US lives, financial concerns, fear of contracting the virus, vaccine anxiety, and worry about the future. During the first half of 2019, 11% of US adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression, and in December 2020, that percentage skyrocketed to 42%. Among older adults, 20% more people said that pandemic-related stress negatively affected their mental health. Certainly, mental health issues require the care of psychiatrists, psychologists, and licensed mental health professionals who can provide counseling and support groups as needed. I strongly encourage people to tap into CJE’s many resources and services to address their mental health needs.

Stress Reduction. Stronger muscles or weight loss are the most recognized benefits of exercise. However, physical activity has also proven to provide mental health benefits such as in stress management and reducing symptoms of depression. Stress is your body’s reaction to a challenging emotional or physical experience or demand. Some stressors are acute and short-lived, like sitting in Chicago rush-hour traffic. Other stressors are chronic and long-lasting, like the loss of a spouse. Stressors may also be traumatic in nature or relatively small in scope. Whatever the stressors, we all experience them, and they impact our health. When faced with a stressor, our body responds through biochemical reactions, cognitive and behavioral responses, mood and attitude changes, and physiological adaptations in our organ system function. Notably, chronic stress, leads to greater incidence of heart attacks, worsened immune function, cognitive dysfunction, fatigue, and dementia. Regular exercise is associated with less strss because it neutralizes the biochemical changes that occur in our bodies in response to stress. To help manage it, research suggests we engage in an enjoyable activity—like walking, swimming, dancing, or gardening—for at least 30 minutes per day. Doing activities at a level that is fairly light and enjoyable may help to ease stress.

Decreased Depression. Research shows that regular physical activity is strongly associated with reduced symptoms of depression. Specifically, for each hour of physical activity a week, there is an 11% decrease in the odds of being depressed. Anxiety, feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and cognitive dysfunction are all influenced because, during exercise, our bodies release endorphins and reduce levels of the hormone cortisol, the primary hormone related to stress response. During exercise, our bodies stimulate neurotransmitters, particularly dopamine and serotonin, to better regulate mood and facilitate more positive feelings. Plus, when you exercise with others (like in CJE Zoom exercise classes) that social contact promotes well-being. Finally, the sense of accomplishment we get after exercising elevates self-esteem and provides a temporary mood boost. Emerging research shows that higher intensity activities provide more significant reductions in depressive symptoms, likely due to greater endorphin release. So, to get the best outcomes, remember to move more and increase the intensity!

Be aware that exercise doesn’t replace mental health care, but it certainly is beneficial, and everyone, regardless of their mental health, should incorporate exercise into their daily routine.

Take advantage of all of CJE’s resources to improve your mental and physical health and prevent falls! Go to cje.net/falls and cje.net/cyberclub for exercise classes and visit cje.net/counseling for mental health counseling.