Mental Health Awareness Month: Movement as Medicine
Guest Post by Jen Macko, Assistant Group Fitness Supervisor
May is here! Not only does it bring flowers, but it brings Mental Health Awareness Month, a national movement by the National Alliance on Mental Illness to raise awareness, provide support, educate the public and reduce stigma.
Though the state of Maryland reports lower rates overall in depression and anxiety compared to the national average, its rates of unmet needs for counseling or therapy and its rates of opioid use/overdose are statistically higher (Keiser Foundation, 2023). All of this has been exacerbated by the pandemic, which increased rates of anxiety to 4 in 10 adults.
It’s not all bad news, though: Howard County records a mental health score of 87 out of 100, with 5% lower rates of adults with mental distress than the national average. It’s not a coincidence that on the same U.S. news report Howard County has a score of 94 in health behaviors, including 10% more adults engaging in Leisure-Time Physical Activity than the national average. Leisure-Time Physical Activity, or physical activity engaged in freely during disposable time, is good for more than just your physical wellbeing. Numerous studies have demonstrated that “getting physical” is good for both your body AND your brain!
How exercise benefits mental health
Outside of improving cognitive function (yay!), regular physical activity has also been shown to improve mental health by way of reduced depression, anxiety, and stress as well as improved mood, memory, resilience, satisfaction and even happiness. But how does this work?!?
One way is through endorphins – or “feel good” neurotransmitters – which are bumped up when we break a sweat. Sometimes this is referred to as a “runner’s high,” but you don’t have to be a runner to experience this amazing feeling! Any sort of vigorous aerobic activity that gets your heart pumping will have the same effect. Whether you’re an avid tennis player, a pickle-baller, an elliptical enthusiast or a Zumba lover, CA is here for all your cardio enjoyment. While 30 minutes five times a week is recommended, even as little as 15 minutes of cardiovascular engagement has been show to boost your mood and reduce stress.
Another way that exercise can help improve your mental health is through socialization. Short-term effects include lightened mood and increased feelings of happiness, but regular socialization can actually improve your memory, reduce your risk of dementia, promote feelings of belonging and reduce your risk of depression. While not all exercise is social in nature, here are some of our favorite ways to get moving within the CA community: lifting weights with a back-day buddy, walking the trails with a four-legged friend, swimming laps with your friends, signing up for yoga class or tackling a Tribe workout.
Finally, participating in exercise – whether solo, with a friend or in a group – is a great way to build self-esteem and self-efficacy (one’s belief in themself). Setting out to do something and successfully completing the task instills confidence in yourself and your ability to perform in all aspects of life!
While this list is by no means exhaustive, we hope that it has inspired you to get moving or keep moving to reap the mental health benefits.