Bringing Exercise Into the Discussion on Mental Health

Bringing Exercise Into the Discussion on Mental Health
Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian via AP
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Chronic mental health conditions are increasingly prevalent across the United States.

That’s the take-away finding of a recent study commissioned by the Partnership to Fight Chronic Disease (PFCD).

In fact, it’s estimated that only about 17 percent of adults in the U.S. are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

Mental health has always been a challenging issue to address. It’s complex and requires many solutions. But exercise—a potentially powerful antidote—has been chronically overlooked.

This increased prevalence of chronic mental health conditions, along with the strong connection between mental health and other chronic diseases, are noteworthy. People with diabetes, for example, are at a greater risk of depression. As many as one-third of U.S. adults (45 or older) living with arthritis also suffer from anxiety and/or depression. And a recent study found that depression poses just as great a risk in men for cardiovascular diseases as high cholesterol and obesity do. 

Exercise has a powerful role to play in the prevention and treatment of chronic diseases—including chronic mental health conditions. And there is evidence that positive mental health is associated with improved health outcomes.

Over the years, many studies have shown the benefits of regular physical activity to mood and mitigating the effects of stress. A 2014 study, in fact, found that for mild to moderate depression, the effect of exercise may be comparable with antidepressant medication and psychotherapy; and for severe depression, exercise seems to be a valuable complementary therapy to the traditional treatments. The study authors clearly state, “Physical exercise is an outstanding opportunity for the treatment of patients who have a mix of mental and physical health problems.”

For many years, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) and others in the fitness industry have been advocating for inclusion of exercise as part of the healthcare equation. IHRSA has been lobbying the Administration and Congress for policies and legislation to help remove barriers that get in the way of individuals’ efforts to exercise. This includes legislation that would allow people to use pre-tax accounts, like Health Savings Accounts (HSA) and Flexible Spending Accounts (FSA), to pay for qualified fitness and sports expenses, including exercise equipment, health club memberships, and youth sports fees.

Specifically, the Personal Health Investment Today Act (PHIT) (H.R.1267 and S.482) would allow people to use $1,000 pre-tax for fitness activities, and families up to $2,000—which adds up to a potential savings of 20 to 30 percent on fitness costs each year.

For people with chronic conditions who are struggling to take charge of their health, that can be significant, making the choice to be physically active an easier, more sustainable financial decision.

There’s too much evidence pointing to the benefits of exercise to mental health for it to be left out of the public policy and broader mental health discussion. Exercise is medicine.

Chronic mental health conditions threaten to cost states up to $3.5 trillion by 2030 if not addressed. And all chronic diseases could cost our country an estimated $2 trillion annually in medical costs, plus another $794 billion in lost employee productivity.

We simply cannot afford to overlook such a relatively pragmatic, accessible and low-cost option in any discussion about how to address mental health conditions in America.

Exercise must be part of the remedy.                      

Helen Durkin, JD, Executive Vice President of Public Policy, International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA)




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