The impact of physical fitness over mental health

The connections between physical fitness and mental health are becoming more evident. Rather than claim that exercise alone cures mental illness, nurses promote physical activity as part of a more holistic treatment plan. This article examines the relationship between the body and mind and how nurses can apply these insights to treatment and diagnosis. This includes looking at physical fitness, mental health, treatment plans, and acute and chronic illnesses.

Some scientific links between physical and mental well-being


You don’t have to take up running to see the positive effects, but the term ‘runners high’ comes from the feeling when endorphins are released during running. Endorphins act as natural pain relievers and mood boosters, providing some of the benefits of traditional medication. This doesn’t mean you won’t need to take prescribed drugs, but it reduces possible reliance on them and side effects. Luckily, you can still get a similar feeling from less strenuous exercise. The important thing is that you should start at a level you feel comfortable with. If that’s a ten-minute walk to the local park, then it’s better for you than no exercise.

Stress reduction

Physical activity can lower the body’s stress hormones. Of course, the more strenuous, the more adrenaline you will feel. However, this is a more positive form of adrenaline. A good workout will help you to release tension and eliminate negative feelings, such as anger or frustration. In short, it’s an outlet for negative emotions. It may take a while to turn regular exercise into something you look forward to, but it contributes to feeling better about yourself once you do. This includes coping better with stress.

Improved sleep

You will likely sleep better once you find an exercise routine that works for you. While this isn’t a definitive cure for mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, getting enough sleep is essential. A lack of sleep and poor mental health are not good combinations. Being fully rested means your body is ready for exercise, and your mood can be improved in the abovementioned ways. As you can see, the mind and body are deeply connected. Issues in one area have a domino effect in others.

Reducing inflammation

Although there is still some debate about the connection between exercise and inflammation, there are some reasons to believe they are connected. For example, inactivity leads to weight gain and makes weight loss more challenging. Physical ailments that are caused or aggravated by inflammation could be worsened. The extra weight may place more pressure on affected areas of the body. So, it makes sense that exercise which contributes to weight loss would reduce this physical toll on the body. This could help to improve mental well-being where the individual has become depressed as a result of frequently being in pain and having this pain limit them in other areas of their life.

Improved self-image

Being physically active can lead to toning up, losing weight or achieving goals. For example, you might start with walking, and as your fitness improves, this could lead to running a mile and building up your distance. Alternatively, you might join a hiking group where you walk for miles in areas with stunning views and make new friends. These are all good for improving your feelings and contributing to better mental well-being.

Nurses see these connections and understand that fitness is strongly tied to mental health. They use the knowledge gained from Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner online programs, such as those offered by Wilkes University. The online aspect of this program means that even those with work and personal commitments can fit learning into their busy schedule. This enables more people to qualify as a psychiatric nurse. The modules covered, such as advanced health assessment, can then help them to treat or even prevent mental illness with a range of approaches, from education and advocacy to creating, monitoring, and adjusting holistic treatment plans that include physical exercise.

Physical fitness in treating mental health

Nurses have a thorough process for including physical exercise in their treatment for mental health concerns. It begins with assessing the patient.

The evaluation process

The starting point is determining the patient’s current physical fitness. This helps in setting realistic goals for them. Some may have been sedentary for a while and can only manage a few minutes at the start. Alternatively, this target would be too easy for someone who exercises regularly.

To ensure the goal is attainable, the nurse must understand the patient’s physical limitations, time constraints, commitments to work and family, and anything else that might take up their time. Goals can then be set around these constraints.

The nurse may also want to perform a physical assessment or refer the patient for tests to confirm they don’t have health conditions that the suggested exercise routine would aggravate. The results will help them create a plan of action that considers such conditions.

Strategies for including exercise in mental health treatment

The next step will be for the nurse to work with the patient to create strategies for including exercise in their treatment. Part of this involves collaborating with other medical professionals specializing in specific areas. This ensures the plan doesn’t worsen any existing conditions.

They may also suggest or prescribe specific types of exercise based on a patient’s physical ability and preferences. After all, this must be something the individual will want to do to find the motivation. Otherwise, this will unlikely help them, and they will find excuses not to exercise. It’s equally important that the goals are attainable. Even if the patient wants to run a marathon someday, this should be broken up into much smaller and achievable goals.

Overcoming barriers

Only some people will be receptive to including exercise in their treatment plan. So nurses may have to help them work through barriers. One of these might be needing a safe space to exercise. Therefore, the nurse will need to make time for the patient to discuss any concerns and encourage them to be open about these concerns.

Another barrier could be low self-esteem. For example, gyms can be intimidating places where people feel like they are being judged. It can feel like all eyes are on them. In most cases, gym-goers are too focused on their own routines to judge anyone else or will see a person going to a gym as a positive thing. However, if the patient is still reluctant to join a gym or take part in group exercise, the nurse can help them decide on something they feel more comfortable doing.

Motivating patients

Without motivation, patients may give up quickly, or not start their exercise routine at all. Nurses help with this by educating patients on the benefits of exercise and forming the connection between physical and mental health.

They help patients to build a support network. This could be family or friends, or a local group they can join that will encourage them to reach their goals. A nurse may also help their patient identify unhelpful people or situations. For example, they may have a circle of friends who like to drink excessively, and being around them encourages the individual to drink when they could be focusing on healthier habits.

Exercise prescription for specific mental health conditions

Although the type of exercise prescribed depends on some of the factors already discussed, such as current fitness levels and time constraints, it also differs based on the specific mental health condition.

Yoga for anxiety

Yoga is known for being calming so it can be effective in helping patients who suffer from anxiety. The gentle activity reduces stress hormones and improves overall mood. The slow movements and deep stretching can be a soothing activity for both the mind and the body.

Aerobics for depression

Earlier, we mentioned how endorphins can improve mood. Aerobics is a good way to release them. It’s a vigorous form of exercise, usually accompanied by upbeat music in a setting with others. So, it’s fun and social, in addition to getting a workout.

Low-impact exercise for treating bipolar disorder

For patients who have bipolar disorder, high-impact activity may not be the best thing. These individuals can be prone to mood swings, going from feeling highly energetic to suddenly losing the motivation and energy they need to get through simple tasks. However, low-impact exercise, such as swimming or a gentle walk, would be a suitable exercise to prescribe them.

Monitoring and adjusting treatment plans

Nurses will constantly monitor and adjust treatment plans to ensure they are still effective and make the best use of the patient’s time.

They do this by establishing a baseline at the beginning of their sessions with the patient. This makes changes in mood, physical fitness and overall mental well-being easy to track in subsequent sessions. Based on these changes, they can either reduce or increase the amount of exercise the patient should be taking part in. Or they may need to consider other alternatives.

For example, a patient might feel too tired to take part in exercise in the morning, and this may affect their mental state and attitude toward physical activity. If they feel more awake in the evening, with no outlet for releasing this extra energy, that might be a better time for them to workout. This could also lead to better sleep and less temptation to turn to unhealthy habits like overeating or drinking.

Patient feedback plays a big part in adjusting treatment plans and tracking success. That’s why it’s important for the nurse to build trust and encourage open communication with the patient.

Physical fitness and diagnosis of acute and chronic illnesses

Mental health issues can be identified by physical symptoms. For example, someone who previously took care of themselves – whether by eating a healthy diet, enjoying regular exercise or ensuring they are well-presented – might suddenly stop doing one or more of these things. The physical signs could present themselves as malnutrition, weight gain or symptoms often associated with uncleanliness.

Poor mental health can also cause physical illness or contribute to existing conditions. A person may feel like they can’t seek medical help for mental conditions because of the stigma attached. However, they may seek help for a condition such as back or neck ache. This may be caused or aggravated by a condition such as depression. For example, they may feel low and worthless, and this causes them to slouch more often. By assessing and diagnosing both the physical and mental condition, a nurse can help to treat both and refer them to other specialists as part of a more holistic approach.

Exercise may help both mind and body here too. Physical activity can improve posture and reduce some pressure on parts of the body that are carrying too much weight, while their mental well-being also gains some of the benefits discussed earlier.

Things for nurses to consider

Using physical fitness to identify or manage mental health conditions provides nurses with important insights into patients’ well-being. Tailored exercise routines also enhance treatment outcomes for various mental health disorders. This highlights the need for more healthcare professionals to integrate physical activity into their treatment plans. Nurses should adopt physical fitness as a part of their mental health treatment and diagnosis. This approach can reduce the long-term risks and complications for patients.

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