Exercise and Wellness Health Care Lifestyle Mental Health Public Health

Jumping for Joy: The Relationship Between Exercise and Mental Health

Get Moving Extra 10 Minutes of Exercise Saves Lives

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This story was written by Emily Laptad and was originally published in IN Kansas City's May 2023 edition. For more stories from IN KC magazine, visit inkansascity.com.

After 21 years of practicing medicine, Corrie Mallot, MD, has noted that her patients almost always feel happier when they exercise.

“I’ve asked myself if happier people exercise or does exercise make people happier?” says Mallot, a primary care provider with AdventHealth Medical Group Primary Care at South Overland Park. “Studies have shown over and over that regular strength and cardiovascular exercise are great adjuncts to counseling and/or medication in treating anxiety and depression. Even a minimal exercise routine seems to help.”

Mallot points out that multiple studies have shown exercise can prevent the onset of depression and anxiety, as well as improve the symptoms of depression, anxiety, ADHD, and schizophrenia. A 2019 JAMA Psychiatry study found replacing sitting with 15 minutes of running or one hour of walking daily significantly reduces the risk of major depression.

A Tool of Prevention
The earlier in life an individual forms healthy exercising habits, the lower the likelihood of developing anxiety or depression.

Mallot cites a September 2021 study from Frontier Psychiatry that followed 400,000 people for 21 years, comparing competitive skiers to non-skiers from the general population. The research concluded people with physically active lifestyles had a lower risk of developing anxiety disorders than people from the general population.

“The earlier you start putting exercise into the bank, the more cumulative benefit you receive,” Mallot says. “Starting with a consistent exercise program in your 20s to 50s coupled with modest upkeep will make it much easier to stay active in your 60s through 90s. You will have improved muscle mass, bone density, and exercise tolerance.”

Physical activity improves self-esteem and cognitive function. Initially, exercise can cause a stress response in the body, which eventually lowers levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and epinephrine and triggers feel-good neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin.

“When you engage in strenuous exercise, you mimic the body’s response to anxiety, which allows you to practice coping with the response without becoming overwhelmed,” Mallot says. “Exercise teaches people to put up with short-term discomfort, which can lead to better tolerance of internal disruption, anxiety, and uncertainty. It can also improve blood flow to the brain, causing potential improvements in memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.”

Using Exercise to Treat Mental Health Disorders
In patients diagnosed with mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression, Mallot has used a combination of exercise, therapy, and medication for treatment.

In 2023, the British Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a meta-analysis of 41 studies and concluded that physical activity is 1.5 times more effective at reducing psychological stress than medication or cognitive behavioral therapy.

“Every patient is different,” Mallot says. “I see many patients improve with exercise alone or with counseling and medication. Sometimes patients only need medication for a short time and later do well when their life situation gets a little easier, and they have made lifestyle modifications. Prioritizing sleep and exercise seem to work best.”

For patients with mental health challenges that make it more difficult to routinely exercise or begin a routine, Mallot suggests starting small.

“For people struggling with anxiety and depression, I encourage them to get a walk in on the weekends and then maybe one or two days during the work week. You can start low—five minutes of walking for instance—and go slow, just gradually increasing,” she says. “I also encourage you to think of each day as a new opportunity, even if you’ve been hibernating for months. Park farther away, take the stairs at work, get up and talk to a colleague instead of messaging them. These things all make a difference.”

With AdventHealth’s whole-person approach to healthcare, you can find plenty of resources to help you find a fitness routine that works for you. Visit AdventHealthKC.com/Wellness to learn more about services such as fitness assessments, therapeutic fitness classes designed to improve mobility and symptom relief, yoga therapists trained in disease processes, one-on-one coaching and monitored fitness membership.

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