By Valerie Ramsay
Many people have learned that regular exercise is important for overall good health, yet few truly understand the significant role physical activity plays in our mental health. As a mental health therapist, I can tell you that physical activity is one of the most powerful things we can do to maintain good mental health. This is why I assess every client’s level of physical activity or regular exercise, along with other lifestyle issues such as diet and stress levels, at our first meeting.
One of the most common issues I treat is depression. I typically find that my clients with depression have not been active as this is a side-effect of depression. As with many other mental health problems, people with depression often get stuck in the cycle of, “if I felt better, I’d exercise, but I just don’t, so I don’t”. The mind-body systems are experiencing low energy levels which de-motivate people from engaging in physical activity. I do my best to normalize this and at the same time I strongly encourage them to take the first step towards exercise of some kind as an important part of their overall treatment plan.
Physical activity is key to helping depression for several reasons. Exercise gets the heart pounding faster, moving oxygen rich blood through the body, and the brain, which can have a “waking” effect on the fatigue many depressed people feel. Physical activity also releases “good mood” endorphins, natural chemicals in the body that can improve overall mood.
Physical activity also allows us to release negative emotions and interrupt thinking patterns that cause distress. Exercise breaks that pattern of psychological and physical distress and allows for a more positive energy to enter the mind-body system. In my experience, I see improved mood after someone begins to get active or engages in regular exercise. They fairly quickly experience improved energy levels and an overall lift in mood. With this comes some clearing of the fog of depression and then we can more easily move into the cognitive, emotional and lifestyle reasons for the depression.
Once a client begins to gain some feeling of strength or accomplishment from exercising, and from an understanding of how their lifestyle changes can reduce their depression, they can begin the healing process. As they continue to exercise and grow stronger, their belief in themselves and their power to heal increases. They can then come from a place of strength on a physical energy level and are able to address the tough issues in their life on an emotional and cognitive level. So if you find yourself experiencing life challenges that are causing you to feel depressed, use one of the most powerful proven methods to help treat it quickly…exercise!
Valerie Ramsay is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor (LCPC) and Certified Rehabilitation Counselor (CRC). Valerie primarily utilizes Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and Mindfulness approaches along with a broad range of other techniques to help you develop the skills you need to work through difficulties in life and live well.