Tip the scales toward better mental health this new year

As the new year approaches and resolutions are considered, many people will be looking at their mid-sections and considering shedding some pounds through exercise.

But there is another weighty problem that can be improved through increasing physical activity, health experts say.

“It is widely accepted and understood that mental health and exercise impact each other,” according to Erin Troy, wellness director and personal training specialist with the YMCA of Greater Cleveland.

Losing weight shouldn’t be the only goal.

“Look beyond what the scale says,” Troy urged.

Even moderate levels of activity can have beneficial effects in a number of ways, she added.

“At its simplest, exercise makes you feel good,” said Troy, herself a long-distance endurance runner. “You’re making your body strong and you feel like you’ve done something good for yourself.”

Researchers know that exercise sends chemicals to the brain and other parts of the body that improve our mental outlook.

But it’s more than a daily mood booster that is at stake. A report by the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation warned that mental illness is a crisis in the United States.

Around 26 percent of American adults report symptoms of mental illness in a given year, the report found. That’s close to the percentage of the population that is overweight.

During the coronavirus pandemic, instances of depression, anxiety and other symptoms of mental distress greatly increased, with more than half of American adults affected. Rates of suicide and substance abuse have skyrocketed

The impact of mental illness can shorten your lifespan by 10 years, researchers have discovered.

Fortunately, there is a solution close at hand.

The “Move Your Mental Health” report states that 89 percent of studies they looked at found that exercise has a positive impact on mental health, even for those with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed 1.2 million adults who reported 42 percent fewer poor mental health days due to exercising.

That entails 30-45 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise three to five days a week.

Getting to the gym is important, but the report emphasizes the importance of ‘green exercise’ outdoors, as well.

Troy agrees that “fresh air and Vitamin D” from sunshine are beneficial to mental health.

The study examined the impact of various activities, such as swimming and water aerobics, cardio exercise, cycling, dance and movement therapy, and flexibility and stretching.

The report said that participating in yoga or tai chi has shown more benefits than walking.

Many of these options are available through the YMCA, which fosters a sense of community, Troy said.

“We’re a social species,” Troy said. Working out with others or with a trainer can curtail loneliness and provide support and encouragement, she added. “You don’t have to go it alone.”

As a personal trainer, Troy has seen clients who started with little confidence improve their attitudes as they realize what they could accomplish.

“Exercise is one way of taking control of your mental health,” Troy said. “There is so much that is outside of our control.”

Taking charge of your own well-being creates a sense of empowerment that further boosts your mental outlook, she said.

Experts recommend reducing screen time, but even technology can be put to good use, if it involves games that require physical movement.

Try something new, and if it doesn’t work for you, try something else, Troy said.

Troy, who has completed several 100-mile races and participated in the Ironman competitions, said exercise is “one hundred percent key to my mental health.”

As a wife and the mother of two young children, taking care of herself helps keep her mentally calm, Troy said.

Her own New Year’s resolutions involve working on her own self-care to reduce stress and increase patience.

After all, if you don’t care for yourself, you can’t take care of others.

Information is at www.clevelandymca.org.

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