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Using Sports to Treat Mental Illness

How can sports and physical activity be implemented to rehabilitate mentally ill individuals?

Rocky Klopfenstein

Mental health has always been a sensitive topic in households and schools, typically avoided due to the delicate and awkward situation. Unfortunately, the current situation needs to change, because mental illness cases have been skyrocketing over the recent years. A study conducted by NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) found that 51.5 million Americans suffer from mental illness or roughly 20% of adults (NAMI 4). The same study found that 7.7 million children suffer from mental illness or roughly 16% (4). These numbers are significantly higher than when compared to previous decades. A study released by the American Psychological Association found a “71 percent increase in young adults experiencing serious psychological distress” and 47 percent increase in suicidal thoughts from 2008 to 2017 (Collective 2). However, the danger of mental illness is not just the increasing prevalence, but how deadly they can be. An article was written by Elizabeth Reisinger Walker (Ph.D.), who specializes in mental health and mental disorders which highlights the alarming statistic that, “[...]14.3% of deaths worldwide, or approximately 8 million deaths each year, are attributable to mental disorders” (Walker 7). That’s more deaths than car crashes, stroke, and diabetes combined. The mortality rate of mental illness, which was previously mentioned to be 14.3%, is alarmingly high when compared to other leading illnesses/diseases (7). A mortality rate of 14.3% essentially means that of the total of mentally ill individuals, 1/7 will eventually die (7). That could easily be a close family member or friend, which is a frightening thought. The rising prevalence of mental illness during recent years coupled with the extremely high mortality rate has situated mental illness as a high priority, which desperately needs an effective solution. Currently, most solutions regarding mental illness are sub-par, relying primarily on risky medicines, homemade remedies, and psychological therapy. A study written by Mason Spain Turner (MD), Director of Outpatient Mental Health and Addiction Medicine, found that “[...] more than two-thirds of depressed individuals never receive adequate care” (Lake 3) As mentioned, treatment options for mental health are infrequently effective or can be tremendously expensive. The lack of effective solutions to cure and treat mental illness and mental health brings up the question: What do the rising cases of mental health issues and mental illness suggest the need for alternative solutions? Through the analysis of the current situation regarding mental illness and the beneficial effects of sports and physical exercise, it’s clear that sports would be an effective treatment option. The use of sports as a treatment for mental health and mental illness will ultimately result in a substantial decrease in mortality rate and overall cases, saving and rehabilitating lives.

It’s pertinent to understand what causes mental illness in individuals. As written by WebMD, it’s a, “[...] combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors” (Bhandari 1) First and foremost, genetics play an important role in determining mental illness. According to the NIH (National Institutes of Health), certain “genetic glitches” can increase one's chances of developing a mental illness (NIH 1). The NIH focuses on two genes, CACNA1C and CACNB2, which specialize in cellular machinery (5). They are prevalent in the brain, meaning slight errors could result in mental illness. Unfortunately, genetics are typically passed down from generation to generation, meaning mental illness is present throughout families. Furthermore, it’s nearly impossible to overcome with the current scientific knowledge the medical community has, meaning further information is required. The second cause of mental illness is environmental, stemming from outside factors (Bhandari 3). Although it’s important to acknowledge the possibility of infections in the brain or prenatal damage, which have been shown to cause mental illness, they only represent a small percentage of mental illness cases. They primarily focus on environmental factors such as external stressors. As stated by WebMD, external stressors may include, “Feelings of inadequacy, low self-esteem, anxiety, anger, or loneliness [and] social or cultural expectations” (Bhandari 1) Social media and/or bullying could contribute to increased feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem, which eventually results in poor mental health. Over time, it’s shown that poor mental health deteriorates into mental illness, such as, “[...] Depression, Anxiety Disorders, Schizophrenia, Eating Disorders, Bipolar Disorders, [and] Addictive Behavior” (Oberheu 2). Although the scientific community understands what causes poor mental health and eventually mental illness, it’s important to ask why? What’s the scientific explanation behind the deterioration of somebody’s mental health after they repeatedly encounter outside stressors? Well, it’s due to a lack of important chemicals in the brain, primarily serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins. Environmental stressors reduce the amount of these chemicals which are released to the brain, resulting in the previously mentioned mental illnesses.

Serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins have all been linked to happiness and relaxation (Team 1). Serotonin is an important hormone which “[...] stabilizes our mood, feelings of well-being, and happiness”, according to the Hormone Health Network (Hormone 1). Serotonin also allows the body to communicate with one another, linking the entire nervous system (2). A lack of serotonin is shown to lead to depression and other mental illnesses (Priority Group 5). To continue, dopamine is another important chemical. Dopamine is a chemical produced from happy thoughts or actions and is released when, “when we take a bite of delicious food, when we have sex after we exercise, and, importantly, when we have successful social interactions” (Hartley 4) Dopamine is directly linked to happiness and is important in maintaining mental health, meaning a lack of dopamine can result in depression and mental illness (MedicalNews 7). Finally, endorphins are chemicals released in the body which reduce stress, similar to painkillers. They are important in maintaining happiness and “alleviating depression” (Malinauskas 16). A lack of endorphins also results in depression and other mental illnesses. The clear correlation between all three of these chemicals is that an absence of them, typically caused by environmental stressors, results in mental illness such as depression. Fortunately, this is where sports and physical exercise play an important role in rehabilitating and preventing mental illness.

Sports and physical exercise have been shown in multiple prominent and reliable studies to release important chemicals in the brain, which are linked with happiness and reduced stress. A study conducted on January 7th, 2015 by Alicia Garcia-Falgueras, published by the British Journal of Education, Society, and Behavioral Science, found that sports have a plethora of positive effects on the mental psyche and mental health. First off, she found that the physical exercise of sports has been shown to release endorphins (Garcia-Falgueras 1). Alicia writes that “The endorphins hypothesis is the most popular explanation about how a physical mechanism is underlying the profits of sports” (1) The hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for creating endorphins, is stimulated during exercise (1). As a result, during intense physical activity, the hippocampus releases an increased amount of endorphins into the bloodstream, acting as a natural painkiller (1). This idea is further reinforced by the Mayo Clinic, which writes that “ Physical activity may help bump up the production of your brain's feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins” (MayoClinc 4) Overall, as one plays a sport, the number of endorphins produced by the body increases, reducing stress and anxiety while improving their overall mood. By encouraging mentally ill patients to participate in sports and physical activity, the amount of feel-good endorphins released would skyrocket, which would lessen or even diminish the effects of depression and other mental illnesses.

Sports and physical activity have also been shown to release serotonin. The same study conducted by Alicia Garcia-Falgueras found that the release of endorphins in the body is directly linked to the, “ [...] production for macrophage cells (Mphi) and for T cells and B cells of the immune system [6,7,21]” (Garcia-Falgueras 2). Furthermore, serotonin has been shown to rely on the activation of T cells in the body, meaning that the release of endorphins directly causes the release of serotonin (2). The idea that sports release serotonin is shared among the scientific community, as the American Psychological Association writes that, “physical activity triggers a release of dopamine and serotonin, which can improve mood” (APA 9). As these two studies show, the action of physical activity results in the overproduction of serotonin, which is linked to improved happiness and mental health. Essentially, by participating in a sport, the overall mental health of individuals would skyrocket due to the release of serotonin, which is commonly attributed to feelings of happiness (Health 1).

Finally, sports and physical activity has been shown to increase the production of dopamine. As reported by the American Physiological Association, “[...] physical activity triggers a release of dopamine [...] which can improve mood” (Dishman 9) Dopamine, similar to serotonin, is associated with happiness and enjoyment. This is because as somebody exercises, they activate the reward center of the brain, resulting in the release of dopamine and the feeling of happiness. Over time, the brain rewards itself more and more, releasing a larger and larger dose of dopamine. The credible source explains how increased levels of dopamine are experienced when an individual actively participates in sports and physical activity. The increased levels of dopamine have an immediate positive effect on mental health, increasing their state of happiness. Overall, it’s clear to see that continuous physical exercise will result in the improved happiness of individuals, treating mental illnesses.

There are a few drawbacks to using sports and physical exercise to treat mental illness. Christer Malm, head of Medicine and Rehabilitation at Umea University published a study on May 23, 2019, which found that, “Sport is a double-edged sword regarding effects on health” (Malm 2). He contrasts the positive effects of sports against the possible negative effects, which include, “[...] eating disorders, burnout, and exercise-induced gastrointestinal tract discomfort” (2), as well as injuries. These side effects could be obstructive in the rehabilitation treatment of mentally ill patients. Luckily, the chances of an individual experiencing negative effects due to sports therapy is already low, and further decreases if they are under guidance and instruction. Christer Malm further reinforces the idea, writing that, “Negative aspects are more common in elite-level sports, where there is a fine balance between maximum performance and negative health.” (2) Christer Malm explains that the previously mentioned negative side effects only occur at high, elite-level sports, which starkly contrasts from the mellow, controlled environment of a rehabilitation center. Overall, although there are potential drawbacks to using sports and physical activity as a treatment for mental illness, such as burnout and eating disorders, a safe and secure environment would prevent any chance of harm.

Now, it’s clear to see why sports and physical exercise is an effective solution to treating mental illness and poor mental health. Sports and physical exercise enhances the number of important chemicals which are released, specifically endorphins, serotonin, and dopamine. As mentally ill patients participate in sports, the overproduction of the previously mentioned chemicals in the brain works to increase happiness and decrease stress. Overall, these chemicals work to decrease depression and other mental illnesses, pushing against the environmental stressors which were previously mentioned. The notion to use sports as an effective solution is further reinforced by multiple other reputable sources. For example, Newport Academy, a for-profit organization focused on mental health in children, found that “[...] students who play team sports in grades 8 through 12 have less stress and better mental health as young adults” (Monroe, 1). This statistic further aids the idea of using sports for mental health therapy, showing that it’s effective in reducing mental illness and stress in individuals. Newport Academy continues by making similar connections between the reasoning for why sports has such a positive impact on mental health, focusing on the increased levels of serotonin and endorphins. Newport Academy further focuses on the simulation of, “[...] neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which improves mood” (5). Even better, there are little to no negative consequences of employing sports to treat and rehabilitate the mentally ill, as long as the environment is secure and controlled. To summarize, sports and physical activity would be a great solution to the rising mental illness cases because it is effective in treating mental illness by increasing happiness and reducing stress. All the evidence previously mentioned points towards sports being the most effective solution to rehabilitating mentally ill individuals, as compared to medicine, homemade remedies, and physiological therapy.

In conclusion, a new treatment option for mental illnesses such as depression, ADHD, schizophrenia, and eating disorders is a necessity as the magnitude of cases keeps increasing. An approximated 8 million people die each year due to mental illnesses, which is only going to climb unless an efficient and effective solution is identified (Walker 7). Sports and physical exercise is the required solution, as opposed to medicine, homemade remedies, and physiological therapy. The increased release of chemicals in the brain, such as serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins, increases the overall happiness of individuals, improving their mental health. The drawbacks of employing sports are low, if not none at all. Ultimately, it boils down to how many mentally ill individuals need to die before sports and physical activity are implemented, rehabilitating their lives.

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