Dr Sheila Jhansale

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It might surprise you that getting stronger physically can also improve mental health, but that’s what people who start walking or working out experience. The initial goal may be to increase arm strength or lose weight, but the mental health benefits become apparent over time.

Because of COVID-19, many of us haven’t been to gyms or exercise classes. Forty percent of people aged 65 and over reported less physical movement during the pandemic. Now, however, we have the opportunity to be more active – whether indoors or, due to better weather, outdoors with activities like walking, running, swimming in pools from the city, tennis, rollerblading, hiking, gardening, biking and more.

Research reveals that group activities can increase our commitment to exercise. I have seen this phenomenon firsthand because my husband and I attend a group interval fitness class. It feels like a community as we show up every morning at 5am with our exercise buddies. Naturally, there were times when I was unmotivated or felt too tired to go. However, my husband’s commitment made it more likely that I would attend as well, and we became regulars in the class.

A wonderful benefit of exercising in a group is that people who train together feel less stressed than those who train alone. According to one study, more physical, emotional, and mental health benefits were experienced by participants who exercised in a social atmosphere. Researchers believe this could be due to the meaningful bonds that can be nurtured in a community atmosphere. You see others working hard; it’s not just you. Also, laughing together always helps, which releases endorphins.

Even if you don’t train with another person, exercising regularly allows you to be part of a bigger team. The others in the gym or that same morning walk up Mount Pisgah might not be planning to have coffee with you, but everyone starts to recognize those who show up at the same time. You develop camaraderie, which can lead to you becoming a gym rat in spite of yourself! Maybe you’ll have a dog, which will integrate you into a very large community with easy interactions, whether it’s on a walk around the neighborhood or at the dog park.

If you already have aches and pains, you may think you won’t feel better by exercising. However, research shows that moderate exercise relieves people’s pain. People with arthritis, for example, benefit greatly by staying active. In addition, exercise reduces the risk of falls, heart attacks, diabetes, high blood pressure and certain cancers. A big bonus: you can sleep better. Finally, a study from the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research found that regular exercise can reduce your risk of experiencing severe COVID-19 symptoms.

When you start to increase your physical activity, be moderate. It’s not realistic to expect to run a marathon in a month if you’re not already a distance runner. Start by building muscle and endurance, and if you eventually want to run a marathon, develop a plan that will gradually get you there. To get started at a gym, use the facility’s trainer to establish good exercise habits, find exercises that suit your needs, and receive plenty of encouragement. Whether you exercise in class with others or alone, check with your health care provider if you have concerns about your heart, lungs, knees, or balance.

When exercising, the release of tension is pleasant and our minds are occupied with the effort rather than getting stuck in the same old self-talk. Focusing on play, training, or swimming means our stress, depression, and anxiety can ease. Also, it has been found that we can recover from grief more easily when we are physically active.

Because our world is full of traumatic events like the pandemic and the war in Ukraine, it makes sense to think about preventative maintenance to keep our body, mind, and spirit healthy. I hope you find an activity that you enjoy and can keep doing, because you’ll be healthier the more you put in the effort.

Sheila Jhansale, MD FACP, is the physician in charge at Kaiser Permanente’s Chase Gardens Medical Practice in Eugene. More information on healthy lifestyles is available atkp.org/lane.