Mental Health and Exercise

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A lot has been discussed in the past several days since the mass shootings in Gilroy, El Paso and Dayton regarding mental health.

I am always bothered when mental health gets dragged gratuitously into discussions about gun violence. Mental illness occurs all over the world, and yet we still have a terrible record in the United States when it comes to gun violence and mass shootings. Additionally, the same elected officials who focus on the role of mental illness in our violent culture are often the same ones who have worked to provided greater access to mental health services. (End of that sermon).

As a personal trainer and a rabbi, I am by no means an expert in mental health. I do have some background in pastoral counseling, but I also know when the issue at hand is beyond my training and capabilities; then I refer to a professional. I have also dealt with mental health issues in my family–who hasn’t? A lifetime of living tells me that there are no easy answers, that you cannot just “get over it.” Depression, anxiety, panic disorders, etc., are real and they can be debilitating. The good news is that most mental illnesses are treatable, and success rates are highest with early intervention–which is why it is so important for all of us to work toward de-stigmatizing mental illness.

My own fitness journey really intensified about 11 years ago after my mother passed away. It was not that long after my divorce and after the end of an engagement that did not lead to marriage. I was not at my best. For several years, I had periods when I would go to the gym more regularly and others when I would not. After my mom passed away, a fellow mourner at synagogue services gave me some advice (I have mentioned this in a previous post): “take good care of yourself, this will be harder than you think.” I resolved from that moment to take good care of myself; I made visits to the gym a regular thing and was more careful with my diet. Those decisions–along with the support of family and friends–made a difference. Mourning for a parent was harder than I thought it would be, and taking care of myself was an important part of getting through it. I have stuck with it ever since and it has helped me through emotionally trying times.

Anecdotal evidence aside, there is a firm basis in science for the effect that exercise can have on our mental health. We know about the benefits to our cardio-vascular system, brain health, and musculo-skeletal system, but we do not often talk about what it does for our mental well-being. There are several good articles out there on this topic, and google will be your friend if you want more info.

A few points worth mentioning. Exercising releases chemicals in our bodies that create a greater sense of well-being–in particular, endorphins. The latest research also indicates that increased blood flow, nutrients, and oxygen to the brain as a result of exercise can aid in neurogenesis (the creation of new neurons) in the hippocampus–the part of the brain that helps regulate memory and emotions. For more on this topic, go to: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-works-and-why/201803/how-your-mental-health-reaps-the-benefits-exercise.

Additionally, depending on the exercise we are doing, we can develop greater capacity for mind calming (running, swimming, yoga). Small group classes can help build a supportive community. A personal trainer can create a plan to help us reach our physical fitness goals; many of my clients talk about the emotional well-being they feel as a result of the experience as well.

Exercise will not solve the mental health care crisis in our nation. Exercise will also not put an end to violence and mass murder in our society. Exercise is, however, one piece of the puzzle–not just to improving physical health, but mental health as well.

The world we live in is difficult–harder than we think. The advice I pass along: take good care of yourself. Exercise is one way to do that.