“EX­ER­CISE SAVED MY LIFE”

For­get the “take two pills and call me in the morn­ing” ad­vice of yore. To­day’s ex­perts know one of the best ways to cure what ails you is much less com­pli­cated: just start mov­ing. |

Best Health - - CONTENTS - By ERIN PHE­LAN

EX­ER­CISE SAVED MY LIFE. IF I LOOK BACK ON THE con­nect-the-dot mo­ments of my life, there are di­rect cor­re­la­tions be­tween the peaks and val­leys and the role ex­er­cise has played in help­ing me not just cope but thrive.

I was never the ath­letic kid, but by the time I was 12, ex­er­cise and I had forged an un­break­able bond. A cou­ple of years ear­lier, when I was just 10, my fa­ther died. Sud­denly. One minute he was there, the next gone. A mas­sive coro­nary took him out.

Af­ter sev­eral years of cry­ing, and lots of in­ter­nal­ized grief, I strapped on run­ning shoes one day, sprinted un­til I stopped cry­ing, and never looked back. I had dis­cov­ered a se­cret weapon to deal with sad­ness — ex­er­cise.

Since then, ex­er­cise has helped me re­cover from an eat­ing dis­or­der, deal with mis­car­riages, cope with so­bri­ety and get through di­vorce. Most im­por­tantly, it helps me be a better parent. I run, teach fit­ness, lift weights and do yoga to be healthy and fit, but also be­cause it keeps dark­ness at bay.

“The ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise for treat­ing de­pres­sion and anx­i­ety are in­creas­ingly rec­og­nized world­wide,” says Dr. Gina Di Gi­ulio, a clin­i­cal psy­chol­o­gist and di­rec­tor of psy­chol­ogy at Med­can in Toronto. “The Amer­i­can Psy-

chi­atric As­so­ci­a­tion re­cently changed its guide­lines to in­clude ex­er­cise as a treat­ment for man­ag­ing mood. Sev­eral stud­ies sug­gest ex­er­cise alone can be an ef­fec­tive treat­ment for de­pres­sion, and can be more ef­fec­tive than an­tide­pres­sants for mild to mod­er­ate lev­els of de­pres­sion.” That means for those who are hes­i­tant to pop pills, ex­er­cise can be an ef­fec­tive drug-free way of man­ag­ing men­tal health.

Just ask Tina Panos. The Cana­dian Armed Forces sol­dier de­vel­oped PTSD af­ter returning from a tour of Afghanistan and couldn't un­der­stand what was hap­pen­ing: “I was filled with fury,” she re­calls.

Luck­ily, at the time, she was play­ing hockey and be­gan to rec­og­nize those im­me­di­ate ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise. “Af­ter a game, I felt truly amaz­ing,” she re­calls. Des­per­ate to hold onto that feel­ing, Panos started go­ing to the gym again. “This is when things started to take a turn for the better. The minute I step in­side the gym, all my trou­bles are left at the door. Whether it is car­dio, weights or punch­ing a heavy bag, my en­ergy is di­rected in a pos­i­tive way and I leave feel­ing better than when I ar­rived. Fit­ness is the most un­der-pre­scribed ther­apy there is.”

In fact, there is a strong move­ment to pre­scribe ex­er­cise for men­tal health, and it is one that Dr. Di Gi­ulio hopes will grow. “Ex­er­cise should be widely pre­scribed to pa­tients for pre­ven­tion and treat­ment man­age­ment of men­tal health is­sues. Re­search stud­ies have eval­u­ated mod­er­ate to more intense lev­els of ex­er­cise, de­fined as 45-60 min­utes of con­tin­u­ous car­dio­vas­cu­lar ex­er­cise, 4-5 times per week. This ap­pears to sug­gest that ex­er­cise is only ef­fec­tive at this rate, but this is not nec­es­sar­ily true,” says Dr. Di Gi­ulio. “Aim­ing for four to five times per week might be too over­whelm­ing for many peo­ple as a start­ing point — any ex­er­cise, even if just for a few min­utes, can be help­ful.”

Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study by the Amer­i­can Col­lege of Sports Medicine, any ex­er­cise is better than none. Stud­ies show that ac­tive peo­ple are less likely to be de­pressed and both aer­o­bic ex­er­cise and re­sis­tance train­ing can be ef­fec­tive.

How ex­er­cise works is both sim­ple and com­plex, says Dr. Jennifer Heisz, as­so­ci­ate pro­fes­sor in the depart­ment of ki­ne­si­ol­ogy at McMaster Univer­sity. “Exercising ac­ti­vates the stress re­sponse to help the body rise to the chal­lenge of the work­load. But in­ter­est­ingly, as you ex­er­cise, you reg­u­late your body’s re­sponse sys­tem that deals with stress and men­tal health, too.”

Ex­er­cise pro­duces mood-boost­ing chem­i­cals dur­ing and af­ter ex­er­tion: sero­tonin, dopamine, no­ra­drenaline and en­dor­phins are re­leased by ex­er­cise, all of which are pro­tec­tive fac­tors against mood and anx­i­ety dis­or­ders. Sero­tonin is the “feel good” chem­i­cal, which plays a role in reg­u­lat­ing mood; low lev­els are im­pli­cated in de­pres­sion, anx­i­ety, ob­ses­sive-com­pul­sive dis­or­der and panic at­tacks. Dopamine — the “re­ward” chem­i­cal — helps peo­ple feel a sense of ac­com­plish­ment af­ter fin­ish­ing ex­er­cise, which boosts self-es­teem. No­ra­drenaline helps the brain deal with stress and anx­i­ety by trig­ger­ing the “fight or flight” re­sponse, when re­quired.

All of th­ese chem­i­cals com­bined pro­duce the feel­ing of hap­pi­ness. “Ex­er­cise helps you be­come more re­silient, helps you feel better able to cope, and re­peated ex­er­cise reg­u­lates the stress symp­toms. You reg­u­late your body and your mind’s re­ac­tions,” says Dr. Heisz.

Madeleine Greey knows how ex­er­cise has helped her be re­silient. When her daugh­ter, Krys­tal, was born with Down Syn­drome, Greey sought out an out­let for the ad­di­tional stress of par­ent­ing: a fit­ness class in a com­mu­nity hall. That class helped her forge strong friend­ships and even­tu­ally led her to dis­cover run­ning and yoga. “My 8-year-old daugh­ter would say, ‘Mommy, time to work out’ if I was get­ting cranky or bossy: ev­ery­one in the fam­ily knew that ex­er­cise helped my men­tal health.”

When her hus­band, Don, was di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer seven years ago, and Greey be­came his ma­jor care­giver, “I had to run — fast. He died three months later, and the grief was sud­den and crip­pling. Run­ning re­lieved some of the trapped feel­ings — it helped me vent, while yoga of­fered a mod­icum of peace. Of­ten, I would run with a friend — talk­ing it out was just as im­por­tant as run­ning.”

This is one el­e­ment of ex­er­cise that is key to better men­tal health: the so­cial con­nec­tion. Af­ter Carmel Kyte was di­ag­nosed with breast can­cer, she met a woman who sug­gested she join a dragon boat rac­ing team made up of breast can­cer sur­vivors in the West Island of Montreal. “The minute I walked on that dock and met the team, I was wel­comed with such en­cour­age­ment — I was hooked. It helps build your up­per body strength, you work as a team and pad­dle in syn­chronic­ity, laugh­ing and cry­ing to­gether. It helps us re­build our en­durance af­ter treat­ment, and you look around the boat and know that ev­ery­one has been where you have been.”

Whether it is walk­ing, run­ning, swim­ming, or dragon boat rac­ing, exercising is the cheap­est and most ef­fi­cient drug on the mar­ket for men­tal health. “Ex­er­cise is one of the best things you can do for your health,” says Dr. Di Gi­ulio. “We know the ben­e­fits that ex­er­cise can have on phys­i­cal health, such as im­prov­ing car­dio­vas­cu­lar health or reg­u­lat­ing di­a­betes, but we don't put enough em­pha­sis on the ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise on men­tal health, which is just as im­por­tant. There is no ‘health’ with­out men­tal health, and it's time for all health­care prac­ti­tion­ers to em­pha­size the ben­e­fits of ex­er­cise on both.”

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