dr Sheila Jhansale
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It may surprise you that physical strength can also improve mental health, but that’s the experience of people who start running or exercising. The initial goal might be to increase arm strength or lose weight, but the mental health benefits will become apparent over time.
Because of COVID-19, many of us didn’t go to gyms or exercise classes. 40 percent of people aged 65 and over said they were less physically active during the pandemic. However, now we have the opportunity to be more active – whether indoors or, due to the better weather, outdoors with activities such as hiking, running, swimming in city pools, tennis, rollerblading, hiking, gardening, cycling and more.
Research has found that group activities can increase our engagement in exercise. I’ve seen this phenomenon firsthand because my husband and I take a group interval fitness class. It feels like a community as we show up at 5am every morning with our workout buddies. Of course there were times when I wasn’t motivated or too tired to walk. However, my husband’s commitment made it more likely that I would also attend and we have become regulars in the class.
A wonderful benefit of group exercise is that people who exercise together feel less stressed than those who exercise alone. According to a study, participants who exercised in a social atmosphere experienced more physical, emotional, and mental health benefits. Researchers suspect that this is due to the meaningful connections that can be nurtured in a community atmosphere. You see others working hard; it’s not just about you Also, laughing together always helps, which releases endorphins.
Even if you’re not training with another person, regular training will make you part of a larger team. The others at the gym or on the same morning hike up Mount Pisgah may not plan on having coffee with you afterwards, but everyone is starting to recognize those who show up at the same time. You develop camaraderie which can lead to you becoming a gymnast rat against your will! Perhaps getting a dog will make you part of a very large community with simple interactions, whether it’s a walk around the neighborhood or the dog park.
If you’re already in pain, you might not think that exercising will make you feel any better. However, research has found that moderate exercise reduces people’s pain. For example, people with arthritis benefit greatly from staying active. In addition, exercise reduces the risk of falls, heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and some types of cancer. A big bonus: you can sleep better. Finally, a study by the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research found that regular exercise can lower your risk of developing severe COVID-19 symptoms.
As you begin to increase your physical activity, please be moderate. It’s not realistic to expect to run a marathon in a month’s time unless you’re already a long-distance runner. Start building your muscles and endurance and, if you eventually want to run a marathon, devise a plan that will get you there gradually. To start at a gym, use the facility’s trainer to help you develop good exercise habits, find exercises that are tailored to your needs, and get plenty of encouragement. Whether you exercise in a class with others or alone, consult your doctor if you have concerns about your heart, lungs, knees, or balance.
When you exercise, releasing tension feels great, and our minds engage in the effort instead of getting stuck in the same old self-talk. When we focus on getting through the game or training or swimming, stress, depression and anxiety can all go down. It has also been found that we heal from grief more easily when we are physically active.
As our world is full of traumatic events like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it is wise to think about preventive maintenance to keep our mind, body and spirit healthy. I hope you find an activity that you enjoy and continue because you are healthier when you exert yourself.
Sheila Jhansale, MD FACP, is the Principal Physician at Kaiser Permanente’s Chase Gardens Medical Office in Eugene. For more information on healthy living, seekp.org/lane.