The COVID-19 Pandemic has taken a large toll on our world. The virus is continuing to spread, areas of the United States of America are continuing to see spikes in the numbers, and our country has now surpassed 6 million cases. It seems like this virus may be here to stay for some time, and many people are finding it difficult to cope. Despite all that is going on in the world, mental health has always been an issue in our country that needs to be discussed.
According to the National Institute of Health, 1 in 5 American adults have some form of mental illness, ranging anywhere from mild to severe. Statistics also show that there are many more that do not report/seek medical attention for mental health. During a global pandemic, this number is likely inflated, and there are many reasons why:
- Job/Financial security
- Fear for your own health
- Fear for the health of your loved ones
- Essential workers (especially those in healthcare) dealing with the stresses of working with individuals who may expose them to the virus
- Stay at home orders, and social distancing making people feel lonely/isolated
Although there are many more reasons we could identify, these appear to be the most pressing on our population and can significantly affect the individual living through this time. Some of those with pre-existing mental health conditions may be more likely to have a worsening of their mental health during the pandemic, according to the CDC; however, it can happen to anyone, even children. According to The Boys and Girls Clubs of America, children are at risk for significant mental health issues during this time. Through interviews with mental health doctors, it is found that it is imperative that children be monitored for mental health conditions, especially during this pandemic. Some reasons include:
- Inability to socialize with friends
- Shift to online learning, not being able to engage in-person with their peers
- Sports being delayed/stopped
- Other social events being put on hold
- Food insecurity (if the family is going through a hard time financially)
- Domestic issues in the home, without an “escape” to the confines of a school
It is clear and apparent that mental health is a major issue in this country as well as the world as a whole. There are many things that we do to cope with our mental health; unfortunately, many of them are detrimental to our health. Many people turn to an unhealthy meal, a television show, laying down and tuning out the world, drugs, alcohol, amongst many other ‘pleasures’ that can give an immediate fix. However, in the long run, those choices can lead to poor life-habits that can severely impact long-term health. So, what is the “magic pill” that can help us all with our mental health?
The answer: Exercise
According to the American Psychological Association, “Evidence is mounting for the benefits of exercise, yet psychologists don’t often use exercise as part of their treatment arsenal.” Exercise is a great way to help deal with the stresses and other mental impacts of not just the COVID-19 pandemic, but also for anyone dealing with mental health issues. According to this same article by the American Psychological Association, there is research that shows that exercise (in any form) can be equally as effective as an antidepressant medication for those battling depression. There was a follow up with these same researched patients 1 year later who continued to report lower depression scores with exercise. Another study has shown the immediate impact of exercise. Those who went for a run reported immediate lower scores of depression as compared to those who were sedentary and turned to one of their unhealthy “vices.”
Now, how does it all work? How does exercising affect mood? Here are some, to name a few significant bodily changes:
- Increases in the chemical serotonin, which is the exact chemical targeted by anti-depressant pills
- Increases in dopamine, which is a “feel good” chemical in our brain, as well as a chemical that assists in our ability to think and plan
- Increase in brain-derived neurotropic factor, which supports the growth of neurons in a healthy brain
- Normalizes sleeping patterns, which is vital, as sleep is the time the brain recovers and recharges after a long day of processing information
- General feeling of accomplishment: being able to complete a walk/run, or to lift that weight, can have positive effects on the brain to help deal with the stresses of everyday life
- Sense of purpose: whether it be training for a 5k or to see that number on the weighing scale go down, exercise will give you that sense of purpose for your day
It is apparent that our usual methods of coping with mental health are merely a band-aid over an ever-growing wound, while exercise is constantly within our reach and can be accessed at any time of day, whenever we need it, just like many of the unhealthy vices we currently turn to. With exercise comes many positive physical and mental benefits that should not be overlooked.
If you are looking to improve your mental health, and see exercise as a way to do so, you may be wondering where to turn for advice/guidance. Speaking with a licensed medical professional is a great way to start, especially if you are currently living a sedentary life. The last thing you want to do is start exercising for your mental health and cause an injury to a body part that then side-lines you for an extended period of time. A physical therapist can assist in guidance with an appropriate progression of exercises to help prevent exacerbation of current physical injuries, while also preventing new injuries from surfacing. And, in the event that you do sustain an injury during your routine, a physical therapist can help you “stay in the game” of exercise while you deal with the physical injury so you can continue your wellness journey without pause. Contact VTP to set-up an assessment with a physical therapist today.