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Exercise and Mental Illness

Exercise is good for the body, spirit and mind. Activity and exercise are especially important for people living with mental illness. Individuals living with mental illness often have a higher risk for medical illnesses (e.g., heart disease, diabetes and high cholesterol). Conversely, people with medical illnesses are at increased risk for developing mental illnesses, including depression, anxiety and substance abuse. All of this combined reinforces the power of exercise, which can be helpful in many ways.

1) Exercise can help to prevent medical illnesses including the following:

  • Heart attacks (cardiovascular disease).
  • Strokes (cerebrovascular disease).
  • Type 2 diabetes.
  • High blood pressure (hypertension).
  • Cholesterol problems (hypercholesterolemia or hyperlipidemia).
  • Metabolic syndrome.
  • Cancers (e.g., breast cancer, lung cancer, endometrial cancer, colorectal cancer).
  • Obesity.
  • Osteoporosis and associated injuries from falling.

2) Exercise can help to treat certain medical illnesses and stop them from getting worse.

3) By improving one’s general physical health, an individual is at less risk of developing mental illness.

4) Scientists have shown that regular aerobic exercise can decrease symptoms of anxiety and depression.

5) Exercise helps to improve energy, concentration and sleep, all of which are important for people living with mental illness.

Psychiatric Medications and Exercise

An active lifestyle is important for everyone. This is particularly true for those living with schizophrenia and other serious mental illnesses (e.g., bipolar disorder) who are treated with second-generation, atypical antipsychotic medication (SGAs) because they are more vulnerable to obesity. In 2004, a joint panel comprised of the American Diabetes Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the North American Association for the Study of Obesity and the Association of Clinical Endocrinologists issued a statement advising patients taking psychiatric medications. Those on SGAs may be at increased risk for obesity, diabetes, high cholesterol and heart disease. Exercise can be helpful in decreasing the risk of these troublesome side effects. Additionally, early detection—through blood tests—is imperative, and communication with one’s doctor is extremely important.

Steps for Success

The 2013 U.S. government publication, Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, contains useful information for adults and children, including the recommendations that children and adolescents aged six to 17 years should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day, and adults should aim for 30 minutes of exercise daily.

Some people may be intimidated and have a tough time committing to exercise regularly, and for many people, five hours a week sounds like a lot. Scientific studies have shown that movement of any kind can be very beneficial, even if it is only for a few minutes a few times each week. Walking is a very good exercise. Those with any medical conditions—including joint, heart or bone disease—should discuss their exercise program, recommended level of activity and any modifications they may need to make with their health care providers. These steps may be useful in forming an exercise routine.

Exercising on a Budget

Exercise doesn’t have to be intimidating or expensive. A gym membership is not necessary to go for a jog around the park or for a walk with a friend in the neighborhood. Furthermore, exercise doesn’t have to be a structured activity to be done at home or the gym, nor does it have to involve long walks or jogs. Choosing to walk to the corner store to buy milk, instead of driving, can be exercise. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator is another easy way to get in some extra exercise.
Here are a few fun, low cost fitness tips and ideas to help make exercise a part of a daily routine. Also, health care plans sometimes offer discounted gym memberships, and mental health providers may have an arrangement with local fitness centers to help people get free memberships.

Staying Motivated

Everyone loses motivation from time to time, and there are days when you just don't feel like exercising at all. An exercise buddy or trainer is often helpful to maintain momentum. It's important to keep a routine, and here are some options for when extra incentive is needed.

Exercise benefits the body and helps the mind feel more at ease. Physical and mental well-being is a tremendous reward for hard work.


NAMI’s Hearts & Minds program offers many great resources on maintaining a healthy mind and body.  Here are two that may be particularly helpful.

Sample Exercise Journal (PDF)

Goal Setting Worksheet (PDF)

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