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For Your Health – Literally Taking Steps to Boost Mental Health

By Dr. Graham A. Colditz

Siteman Cancer Center

     Apart from not smoking, it’s hard to find something that’s better for us than being physically active. From lowering the risk of heart disease and stroke to boosting mobility to adding healthy years to our lives, activity can have a positive impact on our health in many ways, and that doesn’t just include physical benefits; there are mental benefits as well.

     “Physical activity can improve many mental health symptoms, including stress, depression and anxiety,” said Dr. Abby Cheng, an assistant professor and director of research at the Living Well Center at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. With around 23% of U.S. adults having some level of poor mental health, those benefits can be significant.

     Poor mental health can lower quality of life, both for an individual and their family and loved ones, as well as make it harder to be engaged at work or school or with other key obligations. Regular physical activity can help prevent or manage long-standing mental health symptoms, and can have more immediate effects on how we’re feeling, Cheng said. Short, “on-demand” periods of activity can quickly help with symptoms like stress, anxiety, and low mood.

     “Physical activity causes the brain to send out ‘happy’ chemicals like endorphins and serotonin, which make us feel better, raise our energy levels and reduce pain,” she said. If activities like running, swimming or trips to the gym don’t excite you, there are many other options. Most activities that get your body moving more than normal can have mental health benefits. They can be walks around the neighborhood, weeding in a community garden, doing strength exercises in the park or giving a child a piggyback ride, whatever you enjoy.

     Ideally, this should add up weekly to around 150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity, like walking or gardening, or 75 minutes or more of vigorous-intensity activity, like running or lap swimming.

     Vigorous activities may provide the biggest boost to mental health, but the most important thing is to try to be active regularly, whatever the type or amount. If you’re starting a new routine, be sure to start small and slowly build from there. That’s the best way to keep up with physical activity over time, and don’t be shy to ask for advice or help.

     Of course, therapy and medication play an important role in improving mental health, especially when a person has severe symptoms, Cheng said. “But therapy and medications are more effective when a person is also engaging in physical activity.” Yet, even with all that physical activity offers, many of us find it hard to fit it into our schedules. That can be especially so when experiencing mental health symptoms.

     It is worth considering that physical activity and exercise can have an immediate benefit to how we feel, and that may provide extra motivation for lacing up our shoes, texting a friend and heading out together for a walk. Often, the hardest part of most activities is just getting started. “For someone who is experiencing symptoms of depression, anxiety or bothersome stress,” Cheng said, “physical activity should be one of the first steps taken to address those symptoms.”

     It’s your health. Take control.

     If you, or anyone you know, is in a mental health crisis, get help immediately by dialing 988, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

     Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool YourDiseaseRisk.com.

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