Opinion

Exercise key to fight COVID-19’s toll on mental, behavioral health

A hiker takes a break during the pandemic. (Photo: Leah-Anne Thompson, via Shutterstock.

The coronavirus pandemic is taking a toll on public health, a toll that extends well beyond those who have been infected by the virus.

Nearly all of us have experienced or witnessed the effects: increased stress, heightened anxiety, at least a bit of depression. These conditions are to be expected given the isolation and disruption of our daily lives.

These are conditions to be expected – but not to be ignored.

A survey conducted for the Centers for Disease Control in late June found that 40 percent of U.S. adults reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition related to the pandemic, including anxiety or depressive disorders, substance abuse to cope with stress, and even suicide ideation.

As we continue to confront the threat to our physical health posed by this new contagion, we must simultaneously acknowledge and confront the severe mental health threat associated with living in the time of COVID-19.

Public policy during these challenging times must seek to limit the spread of this highly contagious disease, but it must also address the pandemic’s profound effects on mental health.

It is well established that physical activity, fitness, is essential to maintain good mental health, and that a regimen of exercise is an effective treatment for a range of mental illnesses including mild to moderate depression.

The reason is that exercise triggers an array of biological events that produce myriad health benefits – for your heart and muscles, to be sure, but also for your brain.

Low-intensity exercise, regularly repeated, spurs the release of certain proteins that cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections in the area of the brain, called the hippocampus, that helps regulate mood. The improved brain function simply makes people feel better.

The research is clear: Three or more periods of movement  per week of aerobic exercise or resistance training for 45 to 60 minutes each can effectively treat depression, even chronic depression. That amount of physical activity is also the amount recommended by the CDC and the World Health Organization to promote cardiovascular health and lower the risk of diabetes and other diseases associated with obesity.

Another thing we know about exercise and mental health is that movement  is self-rewarding – that is, even a small amount of exercise can create an upward spiral as it increases the body’s receptors of dopamine. The ensuing sense of reward persuades the brain that further exercise will also be rewarding. That means that, once started, the act of exercising becomes easier to sustain.

The inverse of that effect, unfortunately, creates a psychic inertia for lethargy.

Once the stay-at-home began – offices and schools closed, outside activities limited – not only did stress increase, but conventional opportunities for exercise to sustain and promote good mental health were also restricted.

Health and fitness clubs in the majority of California counties were shuttered, access to swimming pools cut off or severely restricted, recreation programs suspended, group aerobic classes canceled. Even sports for kids were shut down – a major blow to children and their health.

Just as mental health stressors were increasing, opportunities to participate in activities proven to be effective in promoting good mental health were disappearing.

Going forward, our public policies and messaging must address the mental health effects of this enduring pandemic. For example, public service informational campaigns should be expanded to address the broader health threats – “wash your hands,” they might say, “but also move your body.”

It is not an exaggeration to say that in our society the COVID-19 pandemic is triggering an epidemic of mental illness. We know that there is a simple, readily accessible, and effective treatment. Spread the word: It’s movement.

Editor’s Note: Jessica Cruz is CEO of  the National Alliance on Mental Illness California.


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