Written by Ashley Dier | Academy of Lions Media Team | Toronto

Here's a fact, 20% of Canadians will personally experience a mental illness in their lifetime (Canadian Mental Health Association). That is a staggering statistic. But what does mental health really mean? Mental health affects how we feel, think and act and includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

Our mental health and our physical health are interconnected, one just as important as the other, we need to be mentally healthy in order to be physically healthy; for our bodies to work correctly. When we have a physical illness, say the flu for example, we recognize it and typically pay a visit to our Doctor, but we don't do the same with a mental illness. Why is that? Too often due to social stigma, fear and quite simply lack of understanding, we ignore our mental health. With this in mind, I thought now was a perfect opportunity to explore mental health in our community and the positive effects of an active lifestyle. 

Morgan Henderson, a member of the Academy shared with me her own experiences battling depression and anxiety. "A few years ago I was in a really dark place. I was going to school for something I didn't want to do, was working at a job I didn't enjoy and drinking every day. All of these things made me start thinking how unhappy I was with where I was in life. Everyone around me seemed happy and stable and I felt like I had nothing. I started skipping school, calling in sick and sleeping a lot. I avoided my friends and started to resent a lot of them because I was miserable and they weren't. I cried a lot. I felt the lowest I think was humanly possible. Everything made me sad and angry. My family and friends became very concerned for me which made me more upset. I would never wish that feeling upon anyone, it's a scary place to be," she said.  

How does physical activity improve our mental health? Are there really antidepressant effects of exercise? While numerous studies exist proving that being physically active can improve our mental state and infact decrease depression, scientists can't agree on why. The most likely hypothesis, the "monoamine hypothesis" states that "exercise leads to an increase in the availability of brain neurotransmitters (e.g., serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine) that are diminished with depression." (The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed by Lynette L. Craft). That "happy" feeling you get after a workout, that's the dopamine/serotonin/norepinephrine, it's good for your well-being. Working out is literally good for your mind AND body. Morgan found that she preferred treating her depression with a physically active lifestyle rather than medication.

"After talking with my family, friends and Doctor, I started on medication which helped make me feel better emotionally, but I didn't want to be dependent on medication. Exercise releases endorphins which trigger the feeling of happiness similar to what the medication was doing. I started running more and joined some running groups, slowly I began feeling better about myself. I began taking yoga classes, through which I met people who led me to an interest of strength training and Academy Of Lions. From there I found a whole other world of things that made me happy and didn't feel like work. It's been over two years since I stopped taking my medication. I rarely drink and I workout 5-6 days/wk," she said. Adding, "I still have down days but I understand it now and know how to fix them. I'll force myself to go to a class or to a group run and keep myself active. Depression and anxiety will always be a work in progress just like weightlifting and running, there will always be the good days and bad days."

Morgan has not always been comfortable sharing her story, but has realized that opening up about her experiences can help others. "I'm not ashamed of what I went through and what I deal with. I'm open to talking about it, especially if it helps someone else with what they are going through. There are different ways to deal with depression/anxiety. I didn't want to be dependant on medication and letting people know that taking care of yourself (regular exercise and a healthy diet) really can make a difference in how you feel emotionally. It may be a lot more work but the end result is worth it and you end up with a really great support group along the way,"  she said.

Studies show that exercising for 20 minutes per day, 3 times per week, at a moderate intensity is sufficient to significantly reduce symptoms of depression. That "happy" feeling, it's really good for you!

** I am in no way what-so-ever a doctor. I am however documenting the stories of our community this one focusing on mental health. In no way is anything mentioned above meant to replace the advice of your doctor. If you or someone you know may be struggling with mental health issues, never be afraid to talk.