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The Benefits of Physical Exercise for Mental Health Patients

When mind and body connect in harmony, the benefits are clear thinking, more energy, confidence, and better overall physical and psychological health. The mind’s influence on the body can have remarkably therapeutic effects — helping patients to heal faster, lessen their chronic pain, or attain physical goals they once thought impossible.

However, mental illness can short circuit these benefits.  Depression can rob a person of motivation and energy. Anxiety can cripple a person, keeping them housebound. A person suffering with an eating disorder such as anorexia nervosa is sometimes too weak for everyday tasks. Instances like these, when coupled with the right exercise regimen, however, can make a positive difference.

According to Dr. Danielle Struble-Fitzsimmons, Senior Physical Therapist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Westchester Division, “Starting to exercise requires a change in behavior that is especially hard for a person with mental illness. The physical therapist is the main external support for a person’s exercise regimen and uses a variety of strategies to get him moving. They can include motivational language and praise, making plans to confront fear or anxiety, and helping patients challenge their negative beliefs and emotions about exercise. We establish a positive therapeutic relationship through communication. Once a person feels comfortable expressing his concerns, personal goals and preferences, we can begin treatment.”

Physical therapy treatments

  • Balance exercises promote and help maintain equilibrium. 
  • Flexibility exercises promote mobility in joints and muscles.
  • Strengthening exercises promote stronger movement, improved posture and coordination.
  • Endurance/aerobic exercises promote heart and lung health. These include walking, stair climbing, swimming, bicycling, and hiking.

 “Using these four types of exercise, we can develop a specific plan for an individual’s needs and physical health status,” Dr. Struble-Fitzsimmons explained. “For example, people with depression are more likely to have muscle weakness and poor endurance related to sedentary behavior. Patients with schizophrenia may have difficulty with walking and balance and are at a higher risk for weight gain related to medications. Some patients with eating disorders exercise excessively, and this increases risk for overuse injuries such as tendonitis and fractures.”

Action vs. obstacles

Even for someone who is doing well and exercising regularly, there can be a time when circumstances beyond his or her control make exercise less of a priority.  Imagine then the challenges to get moving for a person suffering with mental illness.

A lack of social support from friends and family, barriers to healthcare access, including difficulty securing transportation or home services needed to maintain their recovery, can all be major challenges for people with psychological disorders from engaging in exercise.  Another consideration is their state of mind. Patients with depression often have low motivation, and the idea of starting a new exercise program can be daunting,” commented Dr. Struble-Fitzsimmons. “This can be true even for people who once liked to exercise. So we create initial exercises and activities that are functionally driven, such as getting out of a chair, walking, climbing the stairs. Short, attainable goals build motivation and encourage forward thinking.”

Mind/body connection

Exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety and depression and improving self-esteem, which helps alleviate depression by increasing serotonin, a chemical found in the brain responsible for maintaining mood balance.  Physical activity increases the speed with which serotonin is signaled in the brain, and exercise, especially endurance exercise, can naturally decrease depression.

Sometimes depression descends unexpectedly. Some may find themselves suffering from anxiety or ridden with unreasonable guilt. Fatigue, lack of sleep, long periods of sitting, staring into space, staying in bed for hours without physical illness, are psychological and physical symptoms. Intervention can help because of the strong mind and body connection. Says Dr. Struble-Fitzsimmons, “The benefits of physical exercise for a mentally ill patient are the same as for anyone — improved memory and cognitive function, more energy, improved sleep, and greater strength. The key is to make an effort each day.”

To find a physician visit nyp.org or call 877-NYP-WELL.