Exercise: Powerful Protector of Mental Health

Sunday, August 7, 2016 - 09:45
Exercise protects your mental health

In today’s world, stress abounds.  It often can seem as if everyone we know is “stressed out” - overwhelmed with the sheer amount of tasks required on a daily basis.  Workplace stress (unrealistic expectations, unpleasant interpersonal dynamics), economic stress (how to pay the mortgage when business is slow, mounting credit), and family stress (children, aging parents, marital difficulties) are examples of situations that can trigger the stress – fight-or-flight – response.  Historically, this reaction was truly life-saving – it enabled us to flee from dangerous situations like meeting up with marauding lions while hunting for our dinner.  Regardless of the source, the response of your body is the same. When the brain perceives a stress, it creates an alarm which activates your nervous system. Adrenalin is then released from the adrenal glands. Once the initial ‘alarm’ has passed, you enter the reaction phase of stress. At this point cortisol replaces adrenalin. Regrettably, this can result in weight gain, impaired glucose metabolism, dysfunctional blood pressure regulation, and problems with immune function and inflammatory response - which enlightens us as to why people under chronic stress frequently get ill.

Stress does not only result in the physical manifestation of elevated cortisol – it is a known fact that stressful events are often the trigger for more profound mental health problems, including severe depression and anxiety disorders.  Stress can even trigger and contribute to psychotic conditions like schizophrenia.  To take this one step further, it is now understood that psychiatric conditions underlie drug and alcohol addictions.  Finding strategies to deal with stress is important not only to protect our bodies, but also our mental state. Sadly, the world is not about to change anytime soon.  We, however, have the power to change how we respond to difficult events, enjoying lives that are healthier, happier - and less stressful.  My recommendations, to this end, are:

Safeguard Your Sleep Everyone knows how fabulous they feel after a good night’s rest.  But how many of us consistently get enough sleep?  Proper sleep not only makes us feel better, it enhances memory and cognition, immune functioning, and tissue repair.  Studies have linked insufficient amounts of sleep to heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes, weight gain, Parkinson’s disease, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.  The National Sleep Foundation in the United States maintains that seven to nine hours of sleep for adult humans is optimal, and that sufficient sleep optimizes alertness, memory, problem solving, overall health, as well as reducing the risk of accidents.  REM sleep – when you dream – is specifically linked to restoring and maintaining mental health.  Set a consistent bedtime and stick to it, avoid screens two hours before you are going to retire, and enjoy relaxing activities like drinking chamomile tea, reading, listening to music, meditating, or writing in a journal.

Include Omega 3 Fatty Acids (DHA) in Your Diet, and/or Take a Supplement People who do not get enough omega-3 fatty acids, or do not maintain a healthy balance of omega-3 to omega-6 fatty acids in their diet, may be at increased risk for depression and other mental health issues. Omega-3 fatty acids, found in fatty fish like salmon and sardines, or in fish oil supplements, are important components of nerve cell membranes. They help nerve cells communicate with each other, which is an essential step in maintaining good mental health.

EXERCISE!!! Enough cannot be said about the positive effect of exercise on stress level.  When faced with a band of hungry lions, our instinct was to run away as fast as possible.  This neutralized adrenalin and the other hormones that had been released into the bloodstream.  The problem is that a tricky Power Point presentation, looming deadline, or argument with our spouse does not result in physical exertion.  We can change this. In anticipation of a stressful event, or in response to one, exercise hard for 30 minutes.  Go for a run or power walk, or ride your bike up a hill. This increases circulation to the brain, allowing the body to purge the toxic by-products of stress. According to Dr. John Ratey, MD, author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, exercise also helps in the long term by building up armies of antioxidants such as Vitamins C and E, which help brain cells protect us from future stress.  Along the same lines, some studies have shown that exercise is as effective for mild to moderate depression as Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) drugs like Prozac and Zoloft*.  If you smoke to cope with high levels of stress, note that research has demonstrated that just five minutes of brisk walking can reduce the intensity of nicotine withdrawal symptoms.

The bottom line is that it is possible to face the challenging events of our daily lives with fortitude and equanimity, by allotting 30 of the 1440 minutes of each day to physical activity.  Getting enough sleep will make this pursuit easier.  Based on all we know about the benefits of an active lifestyle, do not make exercise a punishment - make it a reward. 

*Please note that using exercise as a treatment for mental health problems like depression should always be discussed with your medical practitioner.


  • Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). Ten Ways to Cope With Economic Stress.  CAMH Website.
  • Guthrie, Dr. Amanda (2009).  Private conversation.
  • Ratey, John (2008).  Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.  New York, New York: Little Brown and Company.
  • National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Stress Affects Both Body and Mind.  News in Health, January 2007.
  • Williams, Cara (2003).  Sources of Workplace Stress.   Perspectives on Labour and Income - Statistics Canada, Vol. 4, No. 6.