The New York Times reported this week that Excercise and Workouts Are Potent Medicine for the Mentally Ill
MATTHEW HASS is not sure what caused him to blow up to 300 pounds: his sedentary lifestyle, a diet devoid of fruits or vegetables or the medications he took for bipolar disorder. Not that the cause mattered. Mr. Hass knew he was at a crossroads: at 27 he said he felt like a ''heart attack waiting to happen,'' so he decided to give exercise a chance. ''I was ready to try something else that would help my moods,'' he said, ''and maybe help me lose some weight too.''
Mr. Hass, now 28, began working out with a personal trainer on Fridays, thanks to a program in Keene, N.H., called In Shape that pairs people with severe mental illnesses with mentors to guide them through a fitness regime. For almost a year and a half he also did circuit training and played tennis with his mentor. Since he signed up for In Shape not only has he lost 30 pounds, but he said his moods are steadier.
His experience illustrates why mental health experts increasingly recommend exercise for people with severe mental illness. It helps them stay physically healthy, which is crucial in a population that the surgeon general estimated in 1999 loses on average 15.4 years' life expectancy. And research suggests that by improving mood, exercise can be a beneficial accompaniment to other kinds of treatment for mental illness. While exercise is unlikely ever to replace medication and psychotherapy, experts say, it can increase the likelihood that those traditional strategies will be effective.
Scientists have long known that exercise lifts the spirits of people without mental illness, and hundreds of studies have shown how it can improve the psychological health of those who suffer moderate depression, whether or not they take medication or engage in talk therapy.
But newer research has looked specifically at what good exercise can do for people with conditions like bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and severe anxiety disorders. In a recent study at Boston University, for example, 15 previously sedentary patients suffering from mood or psychotic disorders exercised with an instructor three times a week. After three months they reported that their symptoms of depression had lessened, and that they felt a sense of empowerment they had not known before.
At Fountain House in Manhattan people with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder get together to do yoga or tai chi three times a week or to walk for an hour or two. Last month McLean Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Belmont, Mass., opened a fitness center with cardiovascular and strength training equipment. Soon yoga and aerobics classes will be added. ''Ideally we'd like them to go most days for an hour,'' said Sally Jenks, the director of business development at the hospital.
In Shape, which began two years ago, is one of the more established exercise programs for the mentally ill. After going to a spate of funerals for relatively young patients, Ken Jue, the chief executive of Monadnock Family Services, a community mental health center in Keene, created the program to help patients lead longer and healthier lives.
''Their physical health is compromised,'' Mr. Jue explained, ''partly due to side effects of prescribed medications, partly due to the impact of mental illness on lifestyle choices, and in part due to economic limitations that many people with mental illness experience.''
Initially he had hoped to attract 40 people; 65 signed up. ...