Did you know that today is Bell Let’s Talk Day?
Bell Let’s Talk Day is an attempt to bring awareness to mental illness, and to remove the stigma that surrounds it. Mental illness is something that so many men, women, and children are affected by, and yet it’s something we rarely talk about.
This awareness is created by having conversations about something that has likely impacted every single one of us in some way or another, whether we’ve actually experienced mental illness ourselves or we’re close to someone who has.
For every text message (not iMessage) and phone call made today, January 25, Bell will donate 5 cents towards mental health initiatives. They’ll also make a donation every time the hashtag #BellLetsTalk is used on Twitter and Instagram today, whenever the Bell Let’s Talk video is viewed from their Facebook page, and whenever the Bell Let’s Talk filter is used on Snapchat.
You can learn more about Bell Let’s Talk Day and get some really great resources on how to handle mental illness in your own life riiiiight here.
I think today would be a great opportunity to talk about the positive connection between physical activity and mental illness – what do you think?
*As a side note, for the purpose of this post, when I refer to “physical activity” I am referring to structured exercise as opposed to regular, daily movement. Think running over gardening, weight training over taking the stairs instead of the elevator.
So What Exactly IS Mental Illness?
According to the Public Health Agency of Canada, mental illness can be defined as “…alterations in thinking, mood, or behaviour associated with significant distress and impaired functioning.”
Mental illness includes things like depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, and personality disorders, but things like eating disorders, gambling addictions, and substance abuse also fall under that category.
A particular mental illness, such as depression, can have a wide spectrum of effects on a person’s life, and not everyone experiences every single known effect that’s associated with it. Some instances of mental illness are more severe than others, and some last a lifetime while others may be associated with a particular event, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Mental illness doesn’t just affect the guy who yells at himself while he walks down the street. It doesn’t just affect people who are hospitalized for their safety, or the people who can’t bring themselves to get out of bed in the morning.
Many people who experience mental illness are still high-functioning – your co-workers, your friends, that guy in front of you in the grocery line-up who’s getting super agitated, and maybe even yourself. I recently heard a statistic that one in five Canadians has experienced mental illness, but I’m willing to argue that number is even higher. We just aren’t aware of it because so many people are afraid to talk about it.
Anxiety is something I’ve dealt with for much of my life, and it’s manifested itself in a number of different ways throughout the years. Physical symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, an upset stomach, and full-blown panic attacks were much more common when I was younger than they are now. The intense waves of fear I used to feel around the possibility of traumatic events happening was replaced with a general cloud of constant moderate anxiety. While I’m grateful it’s been a number of years since my last panic attack, it can be downright EXHAUSTING being inside my head on a daily basis.
I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to keep my symptoms under control without the use of prescription medication. I had a brief stint where I was put on anti-depressants in high school, but that didn’t last long. I self-medicated with drugs and alcohol for a number of years, and more recently I’ve been practicing meditation and have been visiting a therapist for cognitive behavioural therapy.
But over the last five years physical activity has been HUGE in helping me manage the madness that goes on in my head, and I’m definitely not the only one.
The Connection Between Physical Activity and Mental Illness
Countless researchers have studied the effects physical activity can have on mental illness, and the results are promising. Let’s dive in a little further.
Physical activity gives you a boost of “happy hormones”. When you exercise, you stimulate a release of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that are responsible for improving your mood. This is good news, because low levels of serotonin and dopamine have been linked to depression. Different studies show different results – some say higher intensities are more effective at releasing these hormones, especially dopamine, and others show that even moderate bouts of activity can give you a wave of feel-goodness.
Schmitz et al. (2004) found that people who were diagnosed as mentally ill but were physically active had a higher quality of life than those who led sedentary lives. Quality of life was defined in 8 key metrics – vitality, social functioning, mental health, role limits related to emotional health, role limits related to physical health, bodily pain, and physical function.
Peter Salmon’s 2001 study about the effects of physical activity on stress, depression, and anxiety found that the self mastery and social integration aspects of physical activity provided a huge benefit to those who dealt with mental illness. What exactly does that mean? It means giving people the opportunity to learn and master a new skill, sport, or movement, and providing them safe and socially-inclusive spaces can be a great alternative to or can work in conjunction with traditional therapies.
In the 2000 study Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being, Nanette Mutrie concluded that physical activity is an acceptable treatment for clinical depression with minimal-to-no side effects.
Some other great qualities about using physical activity as a way to treat or manage mental illness? Depending on the activity you choose, it can be much more cost-effective than therapy or medication (although running did turn out to be a far more expensive sport than I anticipated 😉 ). It’s a suitable long-term option that doesn’t just improve mental health – it improves overall health.
Now as with everything, it’s important to approach the facts and statistics with a critical mind. Just because a study found that physical activity can treat depression, it doesn’t necessarily mean it will treat your depression. Just because someone has anecdotal evidence they were able to manage their anxiety by sweating on a daily basis doesn’t mean that’s the singular “cure”.
Everybody and every body is different – we all have different genetics, experiences, perceptions, and even types and severities of mental illness. These days I find it difficult to take anything as conclusive evidence, but the research does prove hopeful for those of us who are affected by mental illness, whether directly or indirectly.
So What Can You Do?
If you’re currently struggling with some form of mental illness, try something. If you’re seeing a doctor or or other professional, talk about the possibility of using physical activity as an additional or alternative form of treatment.
If you aren’t currently seeing a professional for help, reach out to someone you trust for help in beginning an exercise program that’s suitable for you. And please remember that while physical activity is powerful, it can be made even more powerful for many individuals when combined with other treatment options.
If a friend or loved one has confided in you about their mental illness, be there for them. You don’t have to be able to solve their problems, to have all the right answers, to have all the right things to say. Oftentimes, just being there and listening is enough. If you’re open to it, you can always gently suggest the option of going for a walk or trying a new sport together, but don’t push.
And above all else, talk about it. Share your experiences with your own mental battles. Show others it’s okay to talk about their own problems. Let’s show one another we’re not alone.
If you’re struggling with mental illness, please reach out for help. The Canadian Mental Health Association is a great place to start.
Mutrie, N. (2000). The Relationship between Physical Activity and Clinically Defined Depression. In S.J.H. Biddle, K.R Fox, & S.H. Boutcher (editors), Physical Activity and Psychological Well-Being. London, UK: Routledge; pp. 46–62.
Salmon, P (2001), ‘Effects of Physical Exercise on Anxiety, Depression and Sensitivity to Stress – A Unifying Theory.’, In Clinical Psychology Review, Vol.21, pp.33-61
Schmitz, N., Kruse, J., and Kugler, J. (2004). The Association between Physical Exercises and Health-Related Quality of Life in Subjects with Mental Disorders: Results from a Cross-Sectional Survey. Preventive Medicine, vol. 39, pp. 1200–1207.