Exercise is known to improve mental health. But those benefits may be magnified as people deal with the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a San Antonio mental health professional.
Under quarantine, many find themselves with more free time than they’ve had in years. Some will take the opportunity to pick up a new hobby, but others may dwell obsessively on negative aspects of their lives. That kind of thinking, called rumination, is associated with mental health challenges ranging from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder to obsessive compulsive disorder.
“A 50-minute walk has been proven to reduce rumination," psychologist Amanda Wetegrove-Romine said. "Right now, that’s really important, because we’re all ruminating about this pandemic. You can get out and walk around your neighborhood.”
Wetegrove-Romine’s practice, called Psych Hike
, combines traditional psychotherapy with outdoor activities. Research shows that exercise decreases not just rumination but depression and anxiety. It also aids concentration, focus and attention.
“There’s this myth that nature means getting out in the woods,” she said. “But nature is anything that’s a green space. So, if you live in apartment that looks down on a grassy area, that’s nature.”
People facing unfamiliar challenges such as telecommuting during the stay-at-home order can use nature to ease the process, Wetegrove-Romine added.
“There are benefits to looking at a picture of nature or listening to nature sounds,” she said. “Just looking at a picture can produce a short-term improvement in mood.”
Though the pandemic is a difficult time, individuals may develop coping mechanisms with long-terms benefits, Wetegrove-Romine pointed out.
“Some people are feeling the relaxation of being outside without knowing the biology of it,” she said. “It gives us a break from non-stop scrolling of negative news and helps us disconnect.”
Even so, the psychologist is concerned that others may develop less beneficial habits.
“I worry that COVID-19 is going to reinforce our less-healthy coping mechanisms, such as hoarding or being hyper-vigilant about our safety,” she added. “Right now, it’s totally appropriate, but in the long-term it might not be.”
Though some may look to medication to relieve emotional strain, Wetegrove-Romine said physical exercise can be an option to explore first.
“Exercise in general has been shown to be equivalent to an anti-depressant,” she said. “I’m not telling people to stop taking their meds, but the research is compelling.”
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