Exercise for Mood works out for mental health

It’s no secret that exercise releases endorphins and that endorphins make us happy—this has been known to be true since 1974, when hormones were scientifically discovered. Exercise for Mood, however—a program in its fifth semester at McGill—is built on an often disregarded concept: The human element of exercise. Created by two McGill faculty members, Nurse Louise Lockhart, and Medical Faculty Wellness Consultant Stella Miller, Exercise for Mood originated as a study about the ways in which exercise can ease depression, sleep deprivation, and anxiety. It has since evolved into a program integral to the McGill Mental Health Services.

“McGill is a great place to do [a program like] this,” Lockhart said. “We’ve got the space, we’ve got the professionals, so it’s easier to pull something off like this.”

The main goal of Exercise for Mood is to encourage students to integrate regular exercise into their lives on a long-term basis. The program encourages participants to focus on the immediate benefits of exercise, including just feeling good, as opposed to future goals, such as losing weight, which can seem far off and unattainable, and thus discouraging. Exercise for Mood isn’t solely about getting stronger, faster, or even happier; it rather aims to use exercise as a frame for goal-setting and community-building in order to combat mental illness.

“The program is good because it gives people a space to actually talk about self-care,” Lockhart said. “We exercise together, but we also talk about nutrition, and sleep, and goal setting, and positive self-talk. We get together every week and we work on it.”

The program isn’t just about releasing those endorphins either. There are many health benefits to exercising that aren’t just limited to the instant gratification that hormones give participants.

“[Exercise] increases blood flow to the brain,” Lockhart explained. “It helps the brain […] rebalance.”

People who exercise are known to feel calmer: Exercise reduces muscle tension, which in turn eliminates signals of stress sent to the brain. Physical activity also breaks down the growth and development of adrenaline and thyroxine, which then increase oxygen flow to the cells, as well as the use of fatty acids and protein within an individual cell. This process relaxes the body, and a healthy body is a precursor to a healthy mind. Exercise also tends to strengthen posture, which is shown to lead to a more psychologically positive outlook.

“It’s actually so multifaceted,” Lockhart said.

Understanding the science behind the benefits of exercise encourages participants to continue exercise after completing the program.

“We teach [participants] a bit about the science in the sense that it has to be moderate intensity aerobic exercise in order to get the mental health benefits,” Lockhart said.

“We’re wanting a paradigm shift in the way we look at exercise,” Miller added. “We’re focusing on exercise and how it makes you feel in the moment […] all the physiological factors that flow into our bodies right after actually make us feel better.”

Though initiatives such as #BellLetsTalk have helped mitigate the stigmatization of mental illness, one cannot help but to imagine that participants would enjoy the atmosphere of an exercise class—an activity that is well-regarded in society–in conjunction with weekly, supportive meetings and a team-oriented, unstigmatized setting.

“We’ve noticed with some of the participants [in] our program [that] there’s been a huge shift in their engagement even within the sessions,” Miller said. “They are building community and they’re talking more, so they’re coming out of their shells. They tell us how much better they feel.”

Exercise also has wider mental health benefits. Lockhart explained that studies from the University of Toronto have demonstrated that exercise can prevent mental illness in certain people. A study by University of Toronto PhD Candidate George Mammen and Professor Guy Faulkner analyzed over 26 years’ worth of research to find that even modest levels of physical activity, such as walking for roughly half an hour per day, has the capacity to limit the likelihood of depression later in life.

“[Exercise for mentally healthy people] helps increase concentration, increase focus,” Miller said. “It has so many physiological and mental benefits that every one of us can benefit from.”

The benefits of these findings are especially pertinent now, at a time when efforts to combat the stigmatization of mental illness in society are taking place. Exercise is a fairly simple and cost-effective way to prime people for better mental health. The key is for people to make a habit of being physically active. Especially at universities, students don’t want to sacrifice study time for exercise. The time spent exercising, however, has been shown to alleviate stress, increase concentration, and make students more productive.

“This isn’t [only] for people who have mental health issues,” Miller said. “This is for everybody. This is for anyone who lives a high-paced life, who has the regular stresses and anxieties of day-to-day life, who is in a rigorous program at a rigorous school.”

Another reason why mental health professionals are focused on prevention is because it allows for the high medical costs of treatment to shift to other demographics, like the aging baby-boomer generation.

“We need a prevention strategy now more than ever,” Mammen said in an interview with the University of Toronto Media Room. “We need to shift focus and look for ways to fend off depression from the start.”

While Exercise for Mood encourages everyone to exercise to achieve optimal mental health, the program predominantly exists for those suffering from mental health issues. Quantitative results have not yet been analyzed, but qualitatively, the effects on participants have been incredibly beneficial.

“The people who actually feel the greatest improvements [in their] mood from exercise are those who are struggling a bit more,” Lockhart said. “But exercise is often much harder to attain for those folks. We need to give them a hand.”

Based on the improvements that Miller and Lockhart see in the participants, both within the program and during frequent post-program check-ins, Exercise for Mood extends beyond being a helping hand; for many, it’s also a lifeline. 

“People are getting better, they’re getting well in terms of their overall wellness,” Lockhart concluded. “I know we’re doing the right thing.”

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