Fitness: A Healthy Self-Help Treatment

Dynamic Warriors (DW)

Never give up on someone with a mental illness.

When “I” becomes “We”, Illness becomes Wellness.

  • Shannon L. Alder

We are all in this together. Dynamic Warriors found our roots in fitness. We are a group of veterans with varying disabilities. Because of this, we can testify to the power of exercise. Exercise does not only help improve the physical being of a person. It helps to improve the mental parts we keep to ourselves as well.

We applaud our dynamic warriors. It takes a lot of courage to show up every day. This is especially true when we wage internal wars. We highly encourage all warriors to find a fitness routine they enjoy. Exercise will help you create a chiseled physique. More importantly, it will help a dynamic warrior to strengthen the power within. While a strong outside appeals to all, the mental health of any warrior is vital. Not just to their body, but to their overall well-being.

Mental Illness Facts

The National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) produced a 2015 study on mental health. This study focused on Any Mental Illnesses (AMI) among US adults. For the purposes of this study, the NSDUH defined AMI as:

  1. A mental, behavioral or emotional disorder not caused by development or substance abuse;
  2. Diagnosed at the time or within the prior year; and
  3. Met recognized criteria, per the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

It is important to note that AMI includes illnesses of all severities. Some may have little to no impacts on a person’s daily life. Others, called Serious Mental Illnesses (SMI), notably impair one’s life. Warriors who suffer from SMI have illnesses that interfere, limit or prevent them from doing things.

 

  • US Mental Illness Statistics

The 2015 NSDUH AMI study determined that mental illness affects many Americans today. In fact, 1 in 5 adults in the US experience some form of mental illness every year. That equates to roughly 18% of all American adults. If 18% sounds small, let us put it into other words. Every year, 43.4 million adults in the US struggle with a mental illness. Of that, 10 million adults actually suffer from an SMI annually. This equates to roughly one in every 25 adults or 4% of those over 18 years old. For those with chronic mental illnesses, half of them will develop symptoms by the age of 14. Three-quarters of those with chronic mental illnesses will receive diagnoses by the age of 24.

There are many different forms of mental illness. While some may be genetic, others start with external factors.  For example, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) can lead to depression, PTSD and other disorders. Mental illnesses can occur alone or in addition to other types of illnesses. Roughly, 42 million adults in the US live with an anxiety disorder. This includes post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Another 16 million (6.9%) of adults suffer from major depression. This includes adults who suffered at least one major depressive episode in the past year. When it comes to bipolar disorder, 6.1 million (2.6%) of US adults suffer.

  • Impacts:

You may not be aware of the impacts mental illness has on society. Depression, for example, is the leading cause of debility. This is true not just for the US, but for the world. In the US, SMI alone costs $193.2 billion annually. This means less money filters into the local economy. Instead, more money goes to healthcare. Mood disorders are the third most common hospitalization cause. These include depression and bipolar disorders. Sadly, this is true for the young and old alike, affecting both children and adults. Mental illness does not only affect the economy and healthcare. There are serious social consequences as well. In fact, 10.2 million adults with diagnosed mental illnesses also suffer from addiction disorders. An estimated 20.2 million adults in the US have addition disorders. This means that half of all addicts have a contributing mental illness as well. Of the adults in homeless shelters, 26% have a SMI. Of adult in state prisons, 24% suffer from “a mental health condition”. (Sadly, 70% of children in the juvenile justice system have an AMI. Of them, 20% received a SMI diagnosis.) Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in America. Of those who commit suicide, 90% had with a mental illness episode prior to death.

  • Veteran Mental Illness Statistics

Mental illness is not just a civilian issue. According to a 2014 study, 1 in 4 service members showed signs of mental illness. There are many different types of mental illnesses affecting the military. However, depression and PTSD are the most prevalent. In 2014, for example, the JAMA Psychiatry study found veterans to be five time more likely to develop depression. The study also found that service members develop PTSD 15 times more than civilians do. In fact, 11% to 20% of the veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had PTSD. Of those, 30% developed PTSD up to 4 months after returning to the US.

Medical Treatment

There are many reasons people do not seek help for mental issues. Some may not realize they have a disorder. Others may not have the means necessary to seek help. Moreover, mental health issues continue to carry a stigma. Experts have found that many people suffer from their disorder for years or decades, before seeking help. Of those adults with diagnosed mental illnesses, only 41% sought help last year. For adults with a SMI, 62.9% obtained treatment from mental health services. When it comes to juveniles with AMI, 50.6% received help from a mental health facility.

Fitness and Mental Illness

Studies have proven that individuals with a SMI are more likely to develop chronic medical problems. In fact, an adult with a SMI will die roughly 25 years before an adult without one. Unfortunately, many of the reasons for this are actually completely treatable.

One of the best ways to address mental illnesses (and many other chronic issues) is through fitness. This applies to both civilians and veterans. Below are several ways in which exercise specifically helps certain mental illnesses. (We will point out that exercise can supplement or replace actual prescription medications below. However, DW does not condone stopping medical treatments without consulting your healthcare provider. These experts can ensure each Dynamic Warrior has the best care available. Discuss any plans to stop taking medications with your doctor.)

  • ADHD:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) can affect one’s ability to focus. Exercise has been proven an effective treatment. It may even be able to replace your Ritalin or Adderall. (Again, please speak with your doctor for discontinuing use.) Exercise can boost several key chemicals in your brain relates to ADHD. Dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin all increase with exercise. All three directly affect one’s ability to focus. Continued exercise can further increase your concentration and help you learn to focus. It can also improve motivation, memory and mood levels.

  • Anxiety:

There are many anxiety disorders civilians and veterans alike suffer. There are also several medications available from a mental health professional. As with many other prescription medications, there are many negative side effects. By comparison, exercise is a natural treatment. Anxiety disorders typically include constant stress, worry and tension. This can lead to feelings of intense fatigue amongst other things. Exercise can help to reduce tension and stress. It can also help to increase mental and physical energy. By focusing on your choice of exercise, you can help to interrupt those constant nagging thoughts. Whether you are counting reps, focusing on your footing, or meditating – exercise can help you zone in on something other than anxiety.

  • Depression:

Depression is a vicious cycle. Negative thoughts feed into each other and create episodes that can last days, weeks or even months. Experts have found that exercise can help to reduce these negative thoughts. In fact, exercise can treat mild to moderate depression as well as antidepressants. It can help to reduce major depressions episodes as well. Establishing and sticking with a fitness routine may even prevent episode relapses. Exercise actually helps to promote changes within the brain. This includes reducing inflammation as well as promoting new patterns of activity. In short, exercise releases endorphins. These chemicals are known to make you feel better. They also help to energize your spirits and stop the fatigue depression can create. As with anxiety, exercise can help distract you from the negative thoughts associated with depression. (In addition to this, depression can skew your self-esteem. Since exercise will help you hone your physique, it can also help relieve you of self-esteem issues. Who does not want to wake up and love whom they see in the mirror? When you are proud of what you see reflected back at you, the negative thoughts might not seem so strong!)

  • PTSD/Trauma:

You can experience trauma without developing PTSD. However, PTSD typically stems from an intense trauma experience. Studies state that 24.4 million (8%) American adults suffer from PTSD every year. Exercise can help prevent trauma from turning into PTSD. It can also help reduce PTSD symptoms. PTSD and trauma can both cause intense reactions to stressors that trigger episodes. These reactions can make you feel immobilized. Exercise actually helps your nervous system to recover. This can help put a stop to these types of episodes. By focusing on exercises and each sensation, you temporarily relieve yourself of your fears. Nurturing this feeling can help reverse PTSD symptoms. Experts recommend exercises that engage cross-body movements. In other words, you should opt for exercises that employ more than one muscle at a time. This forces you to concentrate even more. Experts also recommend outdoor activities for PTSD and trauma sufferers.

  • Stress:

Stress is often confused with anxiety. While anxiety may include stress as a symptom, it is not the only illness to do so. Because of this, it is important to treat stress as its own illness. Stress can cause insomnia, heartburn and more. Depression, PTSD and bipolar disorder (amongst others) all include stress. In fact, stress can create so much tension that the body physically reacts to it. It can result in tension and pains in the face, neck, back, and shoulders. Stress can also cause migraines, severe headaches and ulcers. Reducing stress, however, is easier said than done in many cases. As with many other types of mental illnesses, exercise can help release endorphins that ease stress. Focusing on your work out not only takes your mind off your stressors. It also helps to stretch, loosen and relax any tense muscles and ease your pains. Not only will this make you feel physically better, but also it will improve your outlook afterwards. The chronic pains that stress can cause may be greatly reduced, thus easing your worry.

  • Other Mental Benefits:

Fitness affects more than one diagnosed mental illness. There are plenty of other benefits worth considering as well. As noted above, exercise releases endorphins. They stimulate new brain cells and help sharpen your memory. Not only is this great for your morning Sudoku, but it helps stave off age-related memory and thinking issues. Exercise can both boost energy and help with sleep issues. Increasing your heart rate several times during a week can train your body to store more energy. By doing this, you will find yourself saying good-bye to the fatigue that stems from inactivity. Exercises in the morning or afternoon burn off excess energy in a way that condones rest. Relaxing evening exercises can also help to increase sleep patterns. Exercise also helps you with your resilience. This is true for both mental and emotional challenges that could trigger episodes. Exercise gives you a healthy way to cope with and work out problems. In addition, it also helps to boost your immune system.

Fitness

Studies have found that moderate exercise, done for 30 minutes five times each week, can help with mental illness. If you are new to exercising or currently unable to complete 30 minutes at once, you can certainly break this into smaller sessions.

Exercise may seem a bit daunting, especially when you are new to it or going through an AMI episode. To help with this, it is important to set small goals. Start with just 5 minutes. Try to fit six mini-work outs in each weekday to begin. However, if all you can manage is one 5-minute session, do not be discouraged. In time, you will progress to three 10-minute circuits or two 15-minute routines. Who knows, you may even find yourself sweating it out for an hour or more.

Small Goals Add Up

Small goals create a ladder to success. This is true for many things in life. When it comes to fitness, however, it is especially true. Depression, for example, can make even the smallest tasks seem daunting. A daily shower may be asking a lot when you are in the midst of a full-blown major depressive episode. Getting to the gym to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes might be too much to start with in that state. Try a brisk, 5-minute walk. Better yet – just skip to the end of your driveway and back. It may seem silly, but it is hard to be upset while skipping. It also helps elevate your heartbeat and release endorphins.

Your mental health is not a short sprint. You have to live the person you are. Fitness can help you make the most of this. Below are several options that can help.

  • Cardio:

Aerobic exercise, also known as cardio, can be done virtually anywhere. We have all heard that running “clears your head”. Cardio helps improve your blood’s circulation. This supplies the brain with more oxygen. Cardio creates an immediate caloric burn. The work you put into cardio creates an immediate reaction. The endorphins that are released do so immediately and rapidly. Without a doubt, it can help burn calories, lean out your muscles, and improve your self-esteem. (When it comes to self-esteem, studies found that 35% of runners immediately felt physically and mentally better.) Focusing on your steps, breathing, and setting distance goals can help with mental illnesses. Cardio makes the brain more efficient and better at learning and problem solving.

Most people think of cardio as running or jogging. That is not all it entails. Walking, cycling and rowing are all cardio activities. Swimming, jump-roping boxing are too. For beginners, try walking three times a week, 20 to 45 minutes per session. Walk as fast as you can to get the most out of your venture and elevate your heartrate.

  • Weight Training:

Unlike cardio, weight training may offer more unique benefits. While weight training will released endorphins, weight training progresses more slowly than cardio. That is, you will rev your heartbeat much faster with both cardio and HIIT-style workouts than you would with weight training. However, weight training creates an after burn that lasts far longer than the cardio. Weight training also helps stimulate muscle growth and strengthening. While cardio helps tone your muscles, weight lifting definitely hones and chisels them. (Women, please note: weight lifting is for you too! Unlike men, most women do not naturally have the ability to “bulk”. Women who lift tone, strengthen and more. However, they will not turn into The Hulk just through lifting.)

Muscle growth is particularly great for mental illness. It creates a chemical and hormonal response that ease mental tensions. It can also help to improve one’s posture. The spine contains the spinal cord. This cord is a massive collection of nerves that are felt throughout the entire body. When your posture is properly aligned, many aches and pains diminish. It also helps your energy flow more freely throughout your body. All of this is uplifting and can help reduce symptoms of mental illness. If self-esteem is an issue for you, studies show that 83% of lifters felt better physically and mentally.

  • Other Workouts:

Of course, there are more types of workouts. Cardio and weightlifting are not your only options. High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workouts are very popular. These workouts focus on short, intense bursts of exercise that increases your heartrate quickly. Mixed in with these are short lulls that allow your heartrate to drop quickly. HIIT workouts are great if you are short on time. (For beginners, try the following. Rest 15 seconds between each 30-second movement. Perform 30 seconds of squats, jumping jacks, high knees and arm circles. Repeat this circuit two times for a full workout.) HIIT workouts are great for engaging multiple muscles at a time. (Remember, experts recommend these types of movements for those with PTSD!) Most HIIT workouts can be performed anywhere, alone or with others. Check out CrossFit clubs near you for like-minded individuals. Pilates and yoga are recommended for spinal alignment. Both of these will help you engage your core and learn how to naturally correct your posture. In fact, chiropractors highly recommend Pilates as a cure for many different issues. Yoga can help with rest, relaxation and meditation. Advanced yoga requires flexibility, muscles and intense focus. However, even beginner yoga has many benefits too. 

Nutrition

Fitness extends to more than just the gym. Nutrition should also be considered part of the package. In fact, studies show that nutrition contributes to developing, managing and preventing some mental illnesses. This includes depression, ADHD and even Alzheimer’s. Your bloodstream, for example, rapidly absorbs high-sugar foods. This creates a sudden high, followed by an intense low. This fatigue can contribute to many mental illnesses. Talk to your doctor about your eating habits if you suffer from mental illness.

Conclusion

Many do not understand much about mental illness. DW does. We recognize the warrior within each of our brothers and sisters in arms, and those who support them. We all need help from time to time. There is no weakness in that. Fitness has been proven to be an effective treatment for many mental illnesses. A healthy routine and diet will go a long way in alleviating many symptoms.