Dr. Sheila Jhansale
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It might surprise you that getting physically stronger can improve one’s mental health, too, but that’s the experience of people who begin to walk or work out. The initial goal might be to increase arm strength or to lose weight, but the mental health benefits become obvious over time.
Because of COVID-19, many of us didn’t go to gyms or exercise classes. Forty percent of people age 65 and older reported less physical movement during the pandemic. Now, however, we have an opportunity to be more active — whether indoors or, because of better weather, outdoors with activities like walking, running, swimming at city pools, tennis, roller blading, hiking, gardening, bicycling and more.
Research is finding that group activities can increase our commitment to exercise. I’ve seen that phenomenon first-hand because my husband and I attend a group interval fitness class. It feels like a community as we show up every morning at 5 a.m. with our exercise buddies. Naturally, there have been times I wasn’t motivated or felt too tired to go. However, my husband’s commitment made it more likely that I would attend, too, and we have become regulars in the class.
A wonderful benefit of group exercise is that people who work out together feel less stressed than those who work out alone. According to a study, more physical, emotional and mental health benefits were experienced by participants who worked out in a social atmosphere. Researchers speculate that this may be due to the meaningful connections that can be nurtured in a community atmosphere. You witness others working hard; it isn’t just you. Plus, it always helps to laugh together, which releases endorphins.
Even if you don’t work out with another person, exercising regularly makes you part of a bigger team. The others in the gym or on the same morning walk up Mount Pisgah may not plan to get coffee afterward with you, but everyone begins to recognize those who show up at the same time. You develop camaraderie, which may lead you to become a gym rat in spite of yourself! Maybe you’ll get a dog, which will make you part of a very large community with easy interactions, whether on a neighborhood walk or at the dog park.
If you already have aches and pains, you may not think you’ll feel better exercising. However, research is finding that moderate exercise eases people’s pain. People with arthritis, for example, benefit greatly by staying active. In addition, exercise lowers your risk for falls, heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and some cancers. A big bonus: You may sleep better. Finally, a study by Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research has found that regular exercise can lower your risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms.
When you start to increase your physical activity, please be moderate. It isn’t realistic to expect to run a marathon in a month if you aren’t already a distance runner. Start by building your muscles and stamina and, if you want to run a marathon eventually, map out a plan that will get you there gradually. To get started at a gym, use the facility’s trainer so you establish good exercise habits, find exercises tailored to your needs and receive lots of encouragement. Whether exercising in a class with others or on your own, check with your health care provider if you have any concerns about your heart, lungs, knees or balance.
When exercising, the release of tension feels great, and our minds are occupied with the effort rather than remaining stuck in the same old self-talk. Focusing on getting through the game or workout or swim means our stress, depression and anxiety may ease. Also, it’s been found that we can heal more readily from grief when we are physically active.
Because our world is full of traumatic events like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it is smart to think about preventive maintenance to keep our bodies, minds and spirits healthy. I hope you find an activity that you enjoy and can keep doing because you’ll be healthier for making the effort.
Sheila Jhansale, M.D. FACP, is the physician lead at Kaiser Permanente’s Chase Gardens Medical Office in Eugene. More information on healthy living is available atkp.org/lane.