There have been studies done about exercise intervention for clinical populations diagnosed with depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and even post traumatic stress disorder. This research shows that there are beneficial effects that produce a statistically relevant and significant reduction in these mental maladies. The following few paragraphs provide info from some articles that covered the topic of using exercise as a good strategy for therapists to employ.
In the 4th century, Plato reportedly quipped, “For man to succeed in life he has been provided with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.” The CDC cites health benefits associated with a range of physical activity and in its absence there can be an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, certain cancers, etc. Physical inactivity may also be associated with the development of mental disorders such as those listed above.
There is evidence for the effectiveness of exercise training in patients with panic disorder impacted by a number of psychological factors such as increased self efficacy, a sense of mastery, distraction, and changes of self-concept. Can or will psychologists prescribe such an exercise intervention as part of therapy for their patients? It would seem to integrate perfectly with cognitive behavioral therapy strategies such as situational analysis, self monitoring, homework activities, and supportive follow-up to help compliance.
Physical fitness will also improve self-esteem and as patients feel better about themselves they’ll develop a more optimistic and energetic frame of mind. There is also an association between aerobic exercise and increased alertness. The exercise improves circulation and increases the availability of oxygen to the brain while it also causes the body to produce chemicals such as adrenaline to promote mental alertness. Fitness can instill a sense of pride and confidence and allow the mind a pathway to escape from everyday stress. Biologically speaking, exercise is said to cause the brain to release beta endorphins, which are essential in relieving pain and create a sort of euphoric or light happy feeling. This overall mood enhancement can be prescribed to help treat depression and anxiety. Regular exercise will also invoke focus, determination, and discipline, which are mentally strengthening.
Cross country skiing and snowshoeing are the top forms of aerobic recreational activities. And aerobic activities have been found to promote mental health, boost energy, improve sleep, relieve tension and stress, and combat anxiety and depression. There is a real proven link between physical fitness and mental health and well-being. We should get moving on this!
How do we encourage more psychologists to enroll their patients in outdoor fitness endeavors as part of therapy? There will be benefits from such strategies at a wide range of levels from getting someone out on rental snowshoes for 3 short weekly hikes to training for a 50 km skiathon.
A strategy to bring together xc skiing or snowshoeing and professional therapists can be developed. The skier can create a prescription for a routine for skiing or snowshoeing a number of kilometers a few times per week and the therapist can schedule sessions or maybe even hold the sessions on the trails. What would that be worth an hour including trail passes? Maybe xc ski areas can sell transferable season passes to therapists in a package? Maybe health insurance could cover the cost of and encourage such a winning strategy.