Can physical exercise heal the mind? | Health & Wellness

Since they existed, human beings have had a way of surviving in the world different from that of other animals, adapting it as much as possible to their needs instead of conforming to it. This capacity for transformation has made us a successful species, but progress has not been free. The invention of agriculture allowed the appearance of great cities, literature and all the glories of civilization, but it also drastically reduced the variety of food and tied the majority to the cultivation of the land. In recent decades, the acceleration of technological progress and a sedentary lifestyle have multiplied the rates of obesity and diabetes, modern life seems to increase mental health problems and electronic devices are destroying our sleep. In a recent book, Jennifer Heisz, a brain health specialist at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, offers a nearly universal answer to all these problems of civilization: physical exercise.

In Move the Body, Heal the Mind (Move the Body, Heal the Mind), Heisz makes a proposition that blends convert faith, “works for me” appeal, and scientific rationale, and may explain why so many people, particularly those starting out in maturity to play sports, they speak of it as a transformative experience. The scientist, who now leads the NeurofitLab at her university, a laboratory dedicated to evaluating the benefits of exercise on mental health, tells how the sport, which she became fond of when she was around 40, helped her in a moment of vital crisis after a separation . So much so that she even redirected the focus of her research from other aspects of neuroscience to investigating the effects of movement on the brain. “My practical, evidence-based approach will help you improve your brain health through exercise,” she promises. And she adds: “You will be fully equipped with a set of exercise skills that will help you achieve more endurance, a more positive outlook, be more focused, be more productive, and have more satisfying relationships. Yes, you can have it all!”

A man practices sports in the Retiro park, last week.
A man practices sports in the Retiro park, last week. JOHN BARBOSA

Despite this wild optimism, Heisz begins by explaining, in part, why exercise can be so expensive, particularly at first. For the first time in human history, too much food is more dangerous than too little, and for hundreds of thousands of years the inclination to avoid wasteful spending or take advantage of any available energy source could have been positive factors for survival and survival. transmission of genes to the next generation. However, in a world of abundance and long lives, those inclinations become burdens. It is estimated that one and a half million people die worldwide every year from diabetes, a disease almost absent from pre-industrial societies. An article that appeared this year in the magazine PNAS He even suggested that the value of grandparents in raising their grandchildren favored that humans, unlike our close relatives, the chimpanzees, could maintain a good physical condition after exceeding their best reproductive years and that exercise is so positive in advanced ages.

In his plea in favor of the movement, Heisz reminds us that it is a “medicine” in which each one must find the right point of effort, without comparing himself with others, and assures that, according to the data obtained in his laboratory, an exercise such as walking for half an hour three times a week reduces anxiety, and that the benefits can be increased progressively by increasing the intensity or duration of the sessions. Later, the researcher recalls studies such as a paper published in The American Journal of Psychiatry, in 2018, which estimated that at least 12% of future cases of depression could be avoided if everyone did light or moderate exercise for at least one hour a week. This study also shows the limitations of the works that investigate the relationship between exercise and better mental health, because the benefits found in depression were not found against anxiety.

The director of the NeurofitLab also raises the possibility of substituting, at least in some cases, antidepressant drugs for exercise. This type of medication, whose consumption increased in Spain by 6% between 2020 and 2021, has been prescribed with increasing frequency in the last two decades, “especially for mild forms of depression that may not meet the criteria clinicians,” says Heisz. For these mild mood disorders, the researcher believes that it is best to assume that a certain level of discomfort can be overcome without the need for drugs. In part, because it is assumed that “low levels of serotonin cause all mood disorders” and that is not true and means that drugs created with this premise are not effective for a significant percentage of people with depression or anxiety.

For Heisz, the production during exercise of neuropeptide Y, related to a greater resistance to anxiety, or the anti-inflammatory effects of physical activity, which would reduce the chronic inflammation that has been related to many depressive symptoms, could explain the positive effects of sport in this type of mental disorders. Although there are studies that support the possibility of anxiolytic or antidepressant effects of sport, even compared with antidepressants for some patients, it has not always been easy to find clear effects or a causal relationship, or to discern to what extent the person capable of overcoming a bad emotional time to go for a run was not really that bad. Some recent studies, however, are succeeding in establishing this robust and causal link between exercise and a lower risk of depression.

A man plays sports outdoors in a park in Madrid.
A man plays sports outdoors in a park in Madrid.JOHN BARBOSA

Mental health is a complex issue in which, in addition to the immense biological diversity and lifestyles of the population that influence it, there is a lack of tools to know precisely the individual risks or benefits of each person or how to treat each ailment. more effectively. Heisz goes on to talk about the benefits of exercise for sleeping better, being more focused at work, or escaping addictions. Beyond the explanations of the mechanisms by which movement can have these effects, it is known that all these factors of life are related. People with mood disorders tend to consume more toxic substances that in turn aggravate those problems. If it can be integrated into a routine, frequent exercise can be a way of, in addition to obtaining physiological benefits such as less chronic inflammation or a segregation of substances that promote sleep, ordering life.

Rafael Tabarés, professor of psychiatry at the University of Valencia, confirms that “the evidence of the benefits of physical activity on mental health is very powerful. Whether you walk in your spare time, go to work, or engage in more systematic exercise at a gym, it can be helpful in preventing depressive or anxiety symptoms,” he adds. In addition, Tabarés points to studies that show the value of physical activity as a complement to pharmacological treatments for depression and its value in reducing relapses when the pills are eliminated. “From my point of view, the big problem we have is that, despite the quantity and quality of evidence of the benefit of physical exercise, it is not used with patients,” he says. In his opinion, it would be necessary for doctors to have time to cooperate with other professionals, “because this type of activity would have to be applied by graduates in physical education or physiotherapists”, and it would also be necessary to rely more on the patient, to inform him that there are these alternatives.

A man practices running in the Retiro Park in Madrid.
A man practices running in the Retiro Park in Madrid.JOHN BARBOSA

This transformation of the system, towards one that in addition to treating the disease promotes health, requires resources and better coordination, but the incorporation of physical activity has already shown its value in the treatment of some diseases such as cancer. Alejandro Lucía, a doctor and researcher in Exercise Physiology at the European University of Madrid, has observed the benefits of exercise as a complement to chemotherapy in cancer patients, and believes that it would also be useful for mental illnesses. Like Tabarés, Lucía believes that “specialized professionals could be incorporated, just as there are physiotherapists or nursing staff”, because “exercise has better results with supervision, particularly in patients who may have greater difficulties, such as those suffering from mental illnesses” . “It is expensive, and prevention is the poor leg of medicine, but the incorporation of these professionals can greatly help people who suffer,” he concludes.

As Heisz collects in his book and other experts recall, the benefits of exercise for the body and mind of almost everyone are diverse and clear. But you have to be aware that, for many, the path to a more active life is not going to be easy and there will always be more chances of success with patience and external help. As recognized by the researcher from McMaster University, 40% of people who start exercising have stopped before three months, and many studies show that people with depressive or anxiety disorders have a greater tendency to a life sedentary. Among the tips that the book offers to start and stay, some of the most obvious: find an exercise that we find pleasant, if possible, do it in company, find your own rhythm and not focus on the final goal but on the process. For people with diagnosed illnesses and more difficulties in being physically active, the change will come when, as Tabarés and Lucía mention, they become aware of the large amount of evidence accumulated on the value of exercise in mental health and professionals are incorporated into the system that can take advantage of a hitherto underutilized potential.

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