WRITTEN BY: Janet Omstead
I’ve been paying close attention to the mental health crisis that is happening alongside this COVID-19 pandemic.
And, as such, I fundamentally believe that play matters more now than ever?
Why? Well, it hits home for me on a personal level.
It doesn’t matter what age you are; mental health affects us all.
Physical activity plays a huge part in staying mentally healthy as you age. It keeps our mind and body connected because there is a complex relationship between the two.
What we do with our physical body, what we eat, how we play, and how much sleep we get can negatively and positively impact our mental state.
Play, as I like to call exercise, has a direct effect on your brain.
For decades we have seen the effects of living in an industrialized world. People are moving less, eating more, relying on pharmaceutical opioids to relieve pain, and spending more time sitting.
Now, with social isolation, job loss, and heightened fear of the unknown, it’s no surprise that there is a mental health crisis.
Quite frankly, lack of play or inactivity turns your brain off and can increase anxiety and depression.
Depression and anxiety can express itself in many ways: from mild “blues” to the severely debilitating “can’t get out of bed.”
When we feel like this, the last thing we want to do is play.
In my book, The Play Book: How To Get In The Habit Of Good Health, I refer to some fundamental research in the area of the effects of physical activity and mental health.
There is scientific proof that regular exercise can work as well as medication for some people who suffer from anxiety and depression (NOTE: DO NOT stop taking your medication without consulting a doctor).
A 1999 Duke University study on exercise and depression revealed that “depressed adults who did 45 minutes of aerobic exercise three times a week improved their mood as much as those who took the prescription anti-depressant Zoloft instead of exercising.”
The idea is that when you focus on movement (let’s use walking as an example) instead of your worry, your body naturally releases more of the positive hormones.
Which hormones? They include serotonin and endorphins, which enhance your mood while simultaneously reducing the production of cortisol (the stress hormone).
One more recent study found that moderate physical activity thickened parts of the brain in beneficial ways and led to 60-year-olds, who had been sedentary, scoring as though they were 20 years younger on executive function tests.
That is the ability to pay attention, organize and achieve goals.
Quite literally, play turns our brains on, and the side effects help our bodies be healthy.
I have had a front-row seat in my personal life with mental illness, and I can honestly say every effort towards moving a little more equals progress for your mental health.
It is a privilege to move our bodies and play. Please don’t take it for granted.
Your brain and body will thank you, even after COVID-19 is gone.