Mind and body Q&A: How fitness helps mental health

Photo illustration by Abigail Compton | Collegian Media Group

Exercise, understandably, improves your physical health. But did you know that being active is also very beneficial for your mental health?

Emily Mailey, associate professor of kinesiology, shares how exercise can affect a person’s mental health overall.

Gabriela Faraone, culture writer: “When we talk about exercise, we immediately think about physical changes, but what about the mental changes? How does being active affect our mental health?”

Mailey: “There is a lot of evidence that exercise can reduce risk of depression, help people manage stress and anxiety. The value of focusing on that is that actually you can perceive those changes in a short term, compared to physical changes like your appearance; that requires a little more time.

“If it’s helping me feel better today, then it can make me want to look for ways to prioritize it. I value the positive feelings that come from it and the immediate return on my investment, rather than this delays changes on physical appearance that comes from months or even years sometimes.”

Faraone: “Can you mention some scientific research that has been done that demonstrates the effects of how exercise impacts your mental health?

Mailey: “We did a study a couple of years ago with military spouses, which is a population that has really high stress, anxiety and depression as well. What we found out is that these people are really busy, and these women have a lot on their plate.

“Even when they feel that they are overweight, or that they are supposed to be exercising more, that doesn’t make it on their to-do list. Even though they feel that they have to do it, there is not enough value for them prioritize it.

“When we frame it more as a tool to influence their mental health, they were more receptive to the idea of trying to fit exercise onto their schedule. If its something that its going to help them to feel less stress and depressed, it is there where they found to value it the most.”

Faraone: “If there is a shift in the way that we think about the benefits of exercise, and we focus more on the mental benefits that comes with it, do you think that people are going to be more physically active?”

Mailey: “It depends on the population that we are focusing on. I think that college students prioritize more the physical benefits, like appearance. As people get older there are too many other competing priorities, such as a full-time job or taking care of their families, so its hard to prioritize something that is just for appearance.

“But I think that there is a potential if we change the conversation to focus more on mental health and by pairing with some other approaches or activities. [This way] people can make exercise a priority on their life.

“It is also about helping people to think about other types of activities that they find to be enjoyable. For some people, the idea to go to the gym might be more stressful and not appealing at all, but the idea of going for a hike outside or playing basketball with a friend sounds more enjoyable. If people find an activity that they like, its more likely to have those feel-good benefits.

“Teach people how to plan it in their day or week. Be intentional about prioritizing it, otherwise is too easy for other things to come up and take up that time.”

Faraone: “Can you tell us a little about your personal experience? Is there any difference since you started to exercise in the way you feel or in your mood?”

Mailey: “I am a morning exerciser. I just like to get up and move. I think that is a good way to start the day. At this point in my life I do not necessarily have any specific fitness or health goals, but I do prioritize exercise because I do think it helps manage stress. If I have gone awhile without doing something, I notice that I just need to get up and move around to feel better.

“Even during the work day If I’m stuck on studying something or doing work, sometimes I go for a quick walk. It’s a good way to clear my head and kind of reset.”

Faraone: “With midterm stress approaching, students tend to quit on their initial fitness goals that they had and keeping active gets a little bit more challenging. Do you have a message for them and our readers?”

Mailey: “People get busy and prioritize other things, but it also comes back to if people really enjoy it or they feel that they are getting something out of it. I think that is where emphasizing some of the mental benefits could help people to feel like this is a worthwhile use of my time.

“It doesn’t have to be only for people that are chronically depressed or anxious. Even for the average person just to give a boost in their mood or energy.

“Also, it’s important to think about ways to be active other than the formal type of exercise that we think of, which is going to the gym. If we have that narrow definition of working out, it can present a lot of barriers that could be difficult to fit in your schedule. But if we think in terms of short periods, and just moving more throughout the day, you can continue enjoy some of those benefits.

“For college students, making exercise a social activity would probably make it more enjoyable. Get friends to go for a walk or a hike, or play a sport. It makes it more fun and makes it something that you would like to keep doing.

View it as a life long habit. That way, even if you have a busy week and you couldn’t make it to the gym because of exams, you still have that mindset that — It was just a crazy week, but I will get back on track.”