Physical Health is Mental Health

By Matthew Etzel

Forty million Americans take psychiatric medication. With this number steadily rising, you have to wonder — how did we get here? Is there a solution? 

Introducing exercise, also known as the arch-nemesis of depression. The effect of exercise on the human body is one of the most widely researched subjects in recent history. After conducting a meta-analysis on 1039 trials involving over 100,000 participants, researchers at the British Medical Journal concluded definitively that “physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety and distress” and “should be a mainstay approach” in mental health treatment. The research on exercise versus depression is as valuable as it is abundant, yet it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Swim down a little and you’ll find exercise battling schizophrenia, PTSD, and substance addiction throughout a multitude of studies. Let’s look at exercise versus schizophrenia as a quick example. Exercise increases the volume and plasticity of the hippocampus (the part of the brain in charge of memory) which is shown to significantly improve symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. At the same time, it also offsets many of the side effects of antipsychotics such as weight gain, diabetes and metabolic syndrome. In the case of a hyper complex and multifaceted disorder such as schizophrenia, the abundant and wholesome effects of exercise pair excellently with specialized treatments. 

Without a doubt exercise plays a significant role in the health of the brain, but there’s even more to the story. A myriad of health indicators including hormone balance, vitamin levels, and sleep quality unequivocally affect mental health. Many healthcare professionals have begun taking steps in the right direction by taking these measurements before discussing treatments, but the medical system at large has yet to implement a coherent criteria involving these indicators. For a great number of those suffering mentally, fixing a poor sleep schedule or a vitamin B12 deficiency might be the minor adjustment needed to catalyze a full turnaround. And unlike psychiatric medication, these fixes are nearly always simple and risk-free. Hold on, I haven’t mentioned exercise in several sentences. Did you know that exercise profoundly affects almost all of these relevant health indicators? 

In the human body, everything affects everything somehow. You know how on Wikipedia you can whiz along from the magna carta to Pokemon Go and then way back to the Rosetta stone and finally land at the Teapot Dome scandal? The body works in the same way. The food you eat, the exercise you perform, the time you go to bed – these all trigger interconnected physiological and psychological changes. For example, high intensity exercise incites a large release of cortisol from the adrenal cortex on the kidneys. When the brain receives this burst of hormones, it adapts to become more resilient against all kinds of stress even outside of exercise. Exercise also enacts positive change on the brain in more direct ways. Taking part in a sport or physical hobby sets the stage for the creation of long term goals, friendships, structure, and so much more. 

The relationship between physical and mental health invites endless discussion but I’ll refrain. The key takeaway I want to give to readers is this: the brain is only as healthy as the body it’s attached to.