I don’t mean to start this mental health article out on a downer but a good friend of mine recently took his own life. And he seemed to have it all together. He

  • Was happily married man of 5 years
  • Just bought the car of his dreams
  • Was close to his family
  • Was a popular guy who seemed to have many friends

Yet that wasn’t enough. He was suffering so much that he thought the only way out was to end it. And he has left many of his friends and loved ones scratching their heads in disbelief. 

There were no warning signs.

No one saw this coming.

No one but him.

When some dies of an illness or an accident, it’s a little easier to wrap you mind around it. There was a cause, a reason they’re no longer with us. But with suicide, it’s different. It leaves many questions behind. Questions that will never be answered.

That’s tough for the people who know him, love him and miss him.  

Unfortunately, this isn’t my first experience with suicide.

A short story about my brother

My brother has been suffering from bipolar disorder for 30 years. It was relatively unknown back in the late 80’s and early nineties when he first started showing symptoms.

I had no idea about his bipolar until after his first suicide attempt and was admitted to hospital.

And he called me the day of his first attempt.

Understandably, I was beside myself with fear, panic and disbelief. How could the brother, I know, and love want to take his own life?  I had no idea of the disease he’s suffering from. 

That was a difficult and confusing day that changed our relationship forever. .

Since then, he has made a couple other attempts on his own life and if it wasn’t for my mother stopping him and the police pulling him out of his car, he’d be six feet under.

And today, this is something he still struggles with.  

Over the years, I’ve tried many times to reconnect with my brother, but we remain separated.  I haven’t seen him in the flesh for over 20 years.

I love him, but I cannot be around him.

All this got me thinking about the role exercise plays with mental health because mental health is something that’s at the forefront currently.

My way of dealing with all this is to write about it. Hopefully this helps you or a loved one who may be struggling with mental illness.

The role exercise plays in mental health

It’s estimated that 970 million people worldwide had a mental or substance use disorder in 2017.

And nearly one in five Americans suffer from a mental illness in a given year and one in 25 American adults live with a serious mental illness. (1)

According to Mental Illness Policy Organization, 50% of people living with a mental illness don’t seek treatment which means there is a lot of self-medicating going on. (2)

Hopefully, you  know all the health benefits of exercise, but it has positive outcomes for mental health also. Because the mind and body are not separate, they’re one.  

Want proof?

Exercise helps to reduce mild to moderate depressiondementia, anxiety, and even reduces cognitive issues in schizophrenia. And raising a sweat also keeps us sharp as we age.

Put simply, exercise directly affects brain health as well as physical health.  

Regular exercise increases the volume of certain brain regions, particularly the hippocampus through better blood supply that improves overall brain health by improving the delivery of oxygen and other nutrients. (3)

The Hippocampus is an area of the brain that’s involved in memory, emotion regulation, learning and plays a crucial role in mental health.

There’s evidence to suggest many mental health conditions are associated with reduced growth and development of nervous tissue in the hippocampus.

If there’s one thing people should be doing to improve their physical and mental health, it’s aerobic exercise.

Aerobic exercise and depression

This one really is a no brainer, pun intended.

Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. (4)

James Blumenthal, a neuroscientist at Duke University gathered 156 adults suffering from mild to moderate depression and split them into 3 groups.

Group one- Treated with drugs only

Group two – Combination of drugs and aerobic exercise

Group three- Aerobic exercise only

He concluded aerobic exercise worked as equally well as treating depression as it did with drugs. Furthermore, combining the two treatments yielded the same success rate as doing either one individually.

Not only did exercise work like a drug, he followed up with 83 of these adults 6 months later and those in the exercise group only 8% had relapsed back into depression. (5)

Impact of exercise on depression

The thought was exercise improved their self-esteem because they took control of their own health and didn’t let the drugs do all the work.

Researchers also discovered that for every 50 minutes of exercise added each week, the rate of depression fell by half. This hold true if you’re already a dedicated exerciser too. (6)

Aerobic exercise and bipolar disorder

Although bipolar and aerobic exercise hasn’t been researched as much as depression, the early results are promising.

A study was done on the effects of aerobic exercise on attention and inhibition in adolescents with bipolar disorder by Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, Toronto, ON, Canada.

Fifty teenagers completed an attention and response inhibition tasks before and after 20 min of recumbent cycling at 70% of age-predicted maximum heart rate.

Magnetic resonance imaging data were analyzed in the brain and they discovered exercise had larger effect in bipolar disorder than the control group throughout ventral prefrontal cortex, amygdala and hippocampus areas of the brain

This study provided evidence aerobic exercise changes neural response during complex mental processes and cognitive abilities among adolescents with bipolar disorder. (7)

In layman’s terms aerobic exercise stopped them going off the deep end.

Resistance training and depression

A meta-analysis was done on the associations between resistance training and those with depressive symptoms. And this analysis of 33 clinical trials including 1877 participants concluded that resistance exercise training was associated with a significant reduction in depressive symptoms. (8)

There was no difference between male or female or whether the person went to the gym more than twice a week. However, lifting weights isn’t a replacement for medication, it was more like a supplement.

Although the link is strong, there was no theories given why this is the case.

However, the exercise probably has both physiological and psychological consequences, says Brett Gordon, a graduate student at the University of Limerick in Ireland.  

He suggested that weight training could be changing aspects of the brain, including the levels of various neurochemicals that influence moods. (9)

What we need to do besides drugs and exercise

Mental health needs to be treated like physical health. Going to a therapist or something similar needs to be treated like going to the gym. No big deal.

And in the age of divisive politics, it’s okay to argue but it’s not okay to be nasty. You don’t want to be the person who pushes another person to the edge.

Because you might be having a bad day but the person, you’re screaming at may be having a worse day.

Wrapping up

I miss my friend and I miss having relationship with my brother. Mental health is tough because the warning signs are subtle or non-existent. And not only is tough on the person suffering but for their loved ones too.

Exercise helps but it will only do so much. Because we need to treat mental health and physical health the same, for all our sakes. 

If you or a friend is struggling here are some numbers to call

  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (U.S.): 1-800-273-8255
  • Crisis Text Line (U.S.): Text “START” to 741741
  • National Domestic Violence Hotline (U.S.): 1-800-799-7233
  • Veterans Crisis Line (U.S.): 1-800-273-8255, press 1


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