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Coaches Blog

Mental Health and Exercise

One of the leading causes of disability in communities is mental disorders. While they are not life-threatening diseases, they can significantly impact overall health and social, emotional, and economic well-being.


Poor mental health can negatively impact exercise habits. Many people experience a cycle of avoiding exercise due to poor mental health, leading to a decline in physical health. It's a vicious cycle.


Some scientists have researched the effectiveness of using exercise as an intervention to improve mental and physical health. Some studies indicate that physical exercise routines can help depressive disorders, anxiety, and panic disorders. Participants noted improvements in psychological and physical health when following a regular exercise routine.


As coaches and exercise professionals, we should acknowledge that some athletes may be coming to us on the recommendation of their doctors or mental health professionals. Athletes may be using endurance sports for more than physical benefits or to accomplish specific goals.


What type and "dose" of exercise should we "prescribe" for these athletes? And how might poor performances in workouts or at races impact their mental health? Are additional precautions against burnout necessary?


While most of these questions are very specific to each individual, coaches can learn many details with a comprehensive interview to understand the athlete's exercise background and goals. From there, you can establish suitable exercise plans.


Type of Exercise: Aerobic vs Anaerobic for Mental Health

There is some controversy about the benefits of anaerobic vs. aerobic exercise for athletes using physical activity to improve mental health. The general consensus indicates that aerobic exercise is better than anaerobic in "treating" depressive, anxiety, and panic disorders.


It is easier to consistently execute aerobic exercise routines, and they tend to be more affordable and straightforward, improving sustained adherence to the program. Remember, one of the symptoms of depressive disorders is a lack of interest in many things -- including exercise. For that reason, reducing or eliminating as many barriers to success as possible is critical.


How much exercise benefits mental health?

For individuals with severe mental disorders, current guidelines on physical activity and exercise (30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity) appear suitable.


For aiding depression, three sessions per week lasting at least 30 minutes at an intensity of 60-80% of their maximum heart rate seem to be the most effective.


Higher doses may have more potent effects on mental health. However, they may be more challenging to implement for an extended period because of the lack of interest from the individuals.


The exercise program must last at least 10-16 weeks to achieve meaningful results in mental health, general physical health, and some common underlying conditions like metabolic syndrome, diabetes, hypertension, or other health conditions that can contribute to mental health disorders. Returning to exercise can also be a framework of success for an athlete after a period of mood instability.


Supervision

As coaches, we should closely supervise these athletes to ensure they adhere as closely as possible to the program. It's also helpful for coaches to remember that some clinical manifestations of depression include minimizing success and getting frustrated easily. Coaches are wise to intervene quickly to intercept these types of situations.


Overall, exercise can be incredibly beneficial for athletes at every level who are navigating mental health challenges. Wise coaches identify the role they may be playing in the athlete's mental health journey, adjust the exercise plan and goals appropriately, and maintain honest conversations with the athlete.

 

Manuel Delgado Gaona is a USAT Level II and Youth & Junior Coach, FMTri Level II Certified Coach, an ACSM Exercise Physiologist, and a Physician specializing in Anatomic Pathology. His coaching philosophy is based on exercise efficiency. Coach Manuel can be reached at manuel@teammpi.com.

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