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Can Mental Illness Be Cured With Exercise?

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Just saying … the smell of physical exercise fills my lungs as I close the locker and head for the stairs. My fitness watch will accurately track my climb up the stairs. As the year progresses, the climb becomes easier and I breathe more freely.

As I climb, my mind becomes worried, but I am determined to reach my goal. I pray that at least one of my favorite exercise machines will be open. “Yes. One is available!”, I exclaim. I quickly adjust the settings of the open elliptical machine. I set my fitness watch and begin to move my legs and arms. My memory is fixed on the goal: run like heck to raise my heart rate and use the muscle enhancement feature to strengthen my muscles.

Lately, I have wondered whether I am still mentally ill. I think back to recent studies on the positive effects exercise has on the brain and how it decreases symptoms of mental illness.

“Like medicine in the treatment of mental illness, exercise can increase levels of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine in the brain. It improves and normalizes neurotransmitter levels, which ultimately helps us feel mentally healthy. Other important benefits include enhanced mood and energy; reduced stress; deeper relaxation; improved mental clarity, learning, insight, memory and cognitive functioning; enhanced intuition, creativity, assertiveness and enthusiasm for life; and improved social health and relationships, higher self-esteem and increased spiritual connection”. (NAMI, 2016)

My thoughts return to the machine. I must work through the stress and maintain the motivation to complete my physician’s goal for me – completing 30 minutes of exercise per day. As I exercise, I look around and wonder if people in the gym have a mental health or substance use disorder. Again, I think back to the research and studies.

“But exercise is also one of the most effective ways to improve your mental health. Regular exercise can have a profoundly positive impact on depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts overall mood.” (Robinson, Segal & Smith, 2017)

After remembering this, I feel hopeful because surely I am not alone. I continue to wonder whether there are others in the gym who experience diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, bipolar, anorexia, body dysmorphia, or substance use.

I ruminate on my first experience with mental illness. I remember being in a crisis home, and how we all struggled to walk each day, often being told to not sit on the couches! People with severe behavioral health issues tend towards a sedentary lifestyle. Today, I am still impacted by the medications and their side effects, and the weight I gained from eating unhealthy meals in the crisis home. I again ask myself, “Have I reached a tipping point. Am I cured of mental illness?”. My mind remains stressed but quiet as I complete my 30 minutes of exercise. My thoughts increase my motivation. I now want to lift weights to strengthen isolated muscles. Yes, it’s all about that hope!



Hibbert, Christina G. (2016). Exercise for Mental Health: 8 Keys to Get and Stay Moving. NAMI. Web.

Lawrence Robinson, Jeanne Segal, Ph.D., and Melinda Smith, M.A. (April 2017). The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise, The Exercise Prescription for Depression, Anxiety, and Stress. Web.


Other Resources:

Association of Applied Psychologists

Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F. D. (2006). Exercise for Mental HealthPrimary Care Companion to The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry8(2), 106.


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