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  • Writer's pictureRyan Sheridan, NP

The Relationship Between Exercise and Mental Health: Body & Mind

Updated: Dec 20, 2022

Exercise is as important for mental health as it is for physical health!

Physical health and mental health have been siloed for too long, often managed independently. The reality is physical health and mental health are so intertwined that attempting to manage mental health without addressing physical health is futile.

In this article I will break down how exercise and mental health are deeply connected, what you can do today to improve both physical health and mental health, and what to look for in a mental health provider.

The not-so fairly odd couple: physical health and mental health

We have so much data, really, a ton of data that confirms the relationship between physical and mental health. On a fundamental level, many mental health diseases are actually a symptom of a physical health disease. Let’s take depression: in some cases, depression may stem from physical conditions that are of out whack. Low thyroid function, low heart rate, and respiratory dysfunction are all shown to cause symptoms of depression. Correcting the physical problem typically corrects the mental health problem too. The list goes on and can become pretty complex, which is why having a mental health provider who is interested in digging deep into physical health and mental health root causes is important.

Ok, you’re thinking I still haven’t really said much you don’t know. Let’s take another fairly simple example: inflammation. Individuals with overactive immune responses or with increased inflammatory markers often find themselves depressed. Why is that? Because inflammation doesn’t just impact your joints (or wherever else), it impacts your brain too! Things like what you eat and drink play a role in inflammation. The chemicals in your brain can get all discombobulated with chronic inflammation. What’s more, this can reduce the efficacy of any antidepressant – making it even more critical to identify the root physical health cause of the mental health symptom!

This is not to say that every mental health disorder has a physical health explanation, but many of them do. Exploring root causes of how physical health and mental health are related is an important part of effective treatment. Folks in perfectly good mental health may have terrible physical health or folks in good physical health may have less than ideal mental health. As with any health care, there is no one-size-fits-all answer to an individual’s health status.

If someone comes to me and says “Ryan, help! I am depressed!” We'll get to work investigating everything! If I just toss a script of Lexapro at a patient and say “get well soon” they may get better, but they may not really be better. By exploring whether there are any physical health explanations for mental health symptoms, we are in a better position to address the cause, not just mask it.

There may not be an apparent physical health explanation – this is good to know too! It helps guide our treatment approach. The more information we have about an individual’s unique physical health and mental health help to deliver personalized treatment options.

Exercise? For physical health and mental health?

Would you believe me if I told you taking a brisk walk for 30 minutes would have a drastic impact on your physical health and mental health? It is true. Even just one session of exercise has immediate physical health and mental health benefits. With consistent aerobic exercise like brisk walking or jogging, your brain actually gets bigger and stronger in key areas like the hippocampus. The circuitry in your brain becomes more robust and powerful, even after just one workout!

So how much exercise do you need to improve physical health and mental health? Studies show even just one workout is beneficial, but the sweet spot for physical health and mental health is between 90-120 minutes per week of aerobic exercise. That means getting your heart rate up and breaking a little bit of a sweat. You don’t need to be so out of breath you’re uncomfortable – just breathing heavy enough that you’re unable to carry a normal conversation without changes in your breathing patterns.

What if you already workout or lift weights? Great! Weight bearing exercise is an important part of overall physical health and can be beneficial for mental health too. However, we leave something on the table when we forgo consistent aerobic exercise. I encourage everyone I work with to engage in some sort of exercise that gets their heart rate up and breathing a little heavy. Keep in mind, there’s no need to go buy any equipment! Running, jogging, biking, jumping rope, swimming, or any other activity that gets your heart pumping is a good one for physical health and mental health.

You do not need to run marathons or win a medal to maximize your body and brain potential!

Feedback Loop: how exercise can get us out of a mental health rut

Imagine yourself feeling stuck or unhappy with how you’ve been feeling lately. Maybe your routine is stale or you’re just feeling off. If you’re not exercising, it’s time to make a change. As we have discussed, physical health and mental health feed off of each other. When you’re feeling down, it can be easy to push off tasks at work or feel impossible to get off the couch! However, when you add in just one walk you’ve altered the feedback loop in your brain. You literally break the cycle or funk that you’re in. The reward circuit in your brain is jumpstarted, impacting your mental health. The chemicals in your brain related to mental health increase, almost immediately.

We know exercise helps physical health, but here we are exercising to address our mental health too. A double whammy! As you probably know, exercise is cumulative. This means what we do today is the building block for tomorrow. This is true for physical health and mental health. When we break that feedback loop today, it’s weak. If we keep exercising, the new connections in the brain become stronger. The once negative habit becomes a new, positive habit. Our mental health becomes stronger alongside our physical health. It becomes easier with each workout session to keep the momentum going.

If you can, I encourage you to find 30 minutes today to exercise with a brisk walk or whatever gets you going. Do it for your physical health AND mental health!

What next?

As we discussed: physical health and mental health have been siloed for too long, often managed independently. The reality is physical health and mental health are so intertwined that attempting to manage mental health without addressing physical health is futile. Finding a provider who digs deep is a critical piece of your long-term physical health and mental health journey.

If you’re looking for a new provider who can be a partner in your health, reach out to me. I hope we can work together. Feel free to repost this blog, just give me a link back!


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