Mental Health Exercise Therapy
You may have heard that exercise can help reduce stress. But how? The science behind exercise and mental health is complex and the reasons can be multifactorial, but in short, it is believed that physical activity causes the brain to release hormones; particularly endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.
The Effects of Exercise on Mental Conditions
Endorphins have numerous effects on the human body, including promoting feelings of euphoria and acting as a natural painkiller. These hormones also improve the quality and quantity of sleep, decrease stress levels and the risk of depression. Thus, exercise is often recommended for those managing a variety of mental health conditions.
I saw the effects of exercise on mental conditions, first hand, while a Kinesiology undergrad at SFU. I had the opportunity to volunteer at Fraser Health’s exercise therapy program for people with various mental conditions. For three months, participants would come in for exercise twice a week.
Studying Mental Health Exercise Therapy
As a Kinesiologist, I would complete an intake assessment for the prospective participant, outlining the benefits of exercise therapy and setting fitness goals. The assessment concluded with measurements of heart rate, resting blood pressure, weight, and waist girth, to ensure that it was safe for them to exercise.
Participants were encouraged to measure their heart rate before, during and after exercise. A typical session consisted of:
- A 30 minute warm-up cardio on various machines of the participant’s choice.
- 30 minutes of resistance training consisting of 12 different exercises. Selected by Kinesiologist to target all the major muscle groups, and involved relatively simple movements. Great examples are Lat pull downs, leg extensions and bodyweight squats.
- The session concluded with a 30 minute cool-down period. This included static stretching and discussions on healthy living topics (e.g. diabetes management, nutrition, benefits of exercise, etc.)
In the three months, I have had an amazing experience working in mental health exercise therapy. I realized that mental health disorders can affect just about everyone. Our participants were demographically diverse in terms of age and ethnicity. However, what most people did have in common was a sedentary lifestyle. In some cases, the participant had never been inside a fitness room prior to the program. It was crucial to educate participants on proper form and technique.
Results of Mental Health Exercise Therapy
What made my experience rewarding was seeing growth in the participants. One man who needed my assistance in showing him proper form and setting up each machine to his height was able to exercise independently without my guidance at the end of his program. Within the span of three months, I noticed several participants had improved confidence in the gym and became more proactive in trying to maintain a healthier lifestyle. It was encouraging to see the transition from participants initially requiring more one-on-on to needing less instruction and able to use exercise as an effective treatment and management tool.
This was definitely without ups and downs. I learned more about barriers that prevented these individuals from exercising effectively, such as lack of motivation and side-effects from medications. One of the obvious struggles for many participants was attendance. My supervising kinesiologist explained that people living with mental disorders oftentimes are coping with many other factors including; doctor’s appointments, side effects from medications, fluctuations in mood, and unstable social and work life.
Participants may be overwhelmed. I noticed that some individuals did not seem to enjoy the exercises and simply went through the motions. If they finished their set exercises early, they opted to sit around and wait for the group rather than seek out new exercises. But, with all its complexities, just getting to the gym and starting their journey is sometimes a win!
If you find yourself struggling with mental health, I encourage you to find some form of physical activity you enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be working out at the gym – anything that gets your heart pumping can be beneficial.
Many of these can be done at low cost or even free. From recreational sports, yoga to even walking the dog or playing with your kids, there are so many ways to be physically active. Explore what your local community has to offer and find something that you can enjoy while breaking a sweat!