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Exercise and Women’s Mental Health

By Dr. Joti Samra, R. Psych (The Vancouver Sun)

Exercise, eat healthy, and get enough sleep. Sounds easy enough, right? Then why do most of us struggle with sticking to healthy behaviors?

We all know what we should do when it comes to our health behaviors – and what we need to do to live a happy, healthy, balanced, long life. For most of us, however – even in the best of times – it’s hard to consistently stick to all of these healthy behaviors. In fact, data tell us that only about 5% of North American adults do.

We often struggle in sticking to the best of our intentions because we fall into a common trap: making non-specific goals that are too lofty, unrealistic, and therefore unattainable.

In our technologically-driven, not-enough-hours-in-the-day society, prioritization of time and effort is a must. So, if you have to choose, what do you move to the top of the list?

Well, if you are a young girl or woman struggling with a mood issue, the answer is a no-brainer: exercise.

Women are up to twice as likely as men to experience psychological health issues in their life, with anxiety and depression being the most common presenting issues. There are many reasons why this is the case but they include the fact that women are more likely to experience a sexual assault or abuse, and are more likely to be impacted by violence in their intimate relationships. Additionally, women continue to bear the burden of childcare and eldercare responsibilities– even as they are becoming exponentially more likely to be equal or primary breadwinners. Conservatively, 1 out of 5 females will experience depression; newer data suggests the numbers may be as high as 1 out of 2.

My personal thoughts, based on my clinical and anecdotal experience? All of us will at some point be impacted by symptoms of depression or anxiety – perhaps never warranting a full diagnosis -but that will significantly impact our quality of life in some way.

So, when it comes to improving women’s mental health, I put exercise at the top of the list. A burgeoning body of literature underscores the beneficial impact that exercise has on our mood: releasing feel-good chemicals in the brain that operate as the body’s natural antidepressants; elevating body temperature (which can have calming effects on the mind and body); and, reducing the release of harmful immune chemicals that can worsen depression.

In addition to enhancing mood, exercise has a number of secondary impacts that also positively enhance mood: providing an outlet for socialization and interaction – after all, we are social creatures and we not only survive, but thrive when we have good, solid social supports around us; boosting our self-esteem and self-confidence; providing distraction from our day-to-day troubles and worries; and, enhancing our physical health.

We know that our physical health is intimately tied to our emotional health, and that improvements in one area lead to improvements in the other.

It is for all of these reasons and more that I feel that public campaigns such as the Shoppers Drug Mart Ride Don’t Hide initiative are so absolutely fantastic. Not only does Ride Don’t Hide aim to break the stigma of mental illness, but it also makes the connection between exercise and mental health.

If you’re getting ready to participate in the ride, you’ll certainly be making some health behavior changes so that you can hit that 10km, 20km, or even 60km riding goal. Here are some tips that can help you make those health behavior changes actually STICK.

1. Pick a specific behavior to change. Start with no more than one to two behaviors to change at a time. Precisely define what you want to change. Ensure that your goal is measurable. If you need to revise your goals later on, you will have to know where you are headed, and how to determine if you are getting or have gotten there. Ensure that your goal is realistic and time-limited. Set a specific period of time in which you will accomplish it.

2. Identify your readiness to change. Before you begin, ask yourself questions such as: “How ready am I really?” “Is this the right time for me to make a change?” “What are the pros and cons of changing?” Consider the benefits of the change. How can you begin to change in a realistic fashion? What would life be like if you didn’t do it? Is it worth it – how or why? Consider how the change fits with other important life values you hold. Prepare to change. Gather the information and tools that you need. Anticipate setbacks. Remember that small change is better than no change. Get supports as you begin the changing process. Consider how you’ll build on your changing behavior over time. What other behaviors can you add in? Once the changes have been made, consider how you’ll transition to a long-term maintenance plan.

3. Identify barriers. Anticipate setbacks. If you had tried to make a change in the past, what got in the way of success? Be brutally honest with yourself about why you failed. Then solve the barriers that you encountered in the past. Identify the pros of not changing your behavior – this can often help you appreciate why the change hasn’t happened yet. Identify the cons of changing – the reasons the change may be difficult to do. Establish a specific contingency plan for each of the barriers you identify.

4. Implement change. Approach behavioral change gradually. Make small, specific changes. Make a schedule with yourself to build change activities into day-to-day life. Follow the “double-time” rule: Schedule double the time you think it would take to achieve the change.

5. Revisit and revise. Do not get discouraged by setbacks. If you are not on track with the changes you identified, work to identify the barriers again. Were your expectations too high? Was the specific goal you set too ambitious? Revise your goal as necessary. Expect and visualize success.

6. Reward yourself. Set milestones that help you track your progress and ensure that you schedule in regular rewards for each one that you achieve.

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