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How Physical Therapy/Exercise Improves Mental Health

Image of Jessica Shaw
Jessica Shaw

Whether you are dealing with an injury or chronic pain, seeking out physical therapy can improve your mental health as well as your physical strength. A physical therapist not only provides you prescribed exercises that improve function but they also act as a source of encouragement and emotional support. 

How Exercise Improves Your Mood

Many people seek physical therapy after an injury or to improve their range of motion from chronic pain. While physical therapy increases functional mobility and helps individuals reengage in meaningful activities they love, it also has positive impacts on the body’s biochemistry as a whole. 

Exercise increases the serotonin and brain-derived neurotrophic factors in your brain as well as boosts the body’s endorphin levels and improves sleeping patterns, all of which significantly help regulate your mood in addition to preventing risks of brain damage. Not to mention, physical activity also cultivates a sense of accomplishment, especially when patients reach targeted goals or witness the progress of their therapy outcomes. This ultimately leads to heightened motivation and diminished feelings of hopelessness, defeat or other negative self-perceptions. 

Why Engagement Truly Matters

As many physical therapy patients have had to face the added challenge of limited treatments due to the Covid-19 pandemic, mental health continues to cause major concern for those who are already restricted physically but now suffer the consequences of extended social isolation as well. In fact, this study on the psychological impact of quarantining, reports symptoms of anxiety, irritability, insomnia and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which can be combated through regular routines of exercise. 

With that in mind, engagement has a critical influence on how patients form relationships, complete plans of care and inherently treat others as well. Most importantly, physical therapy provides patients with a 1:1 interaction (whether virtual or in-person) with their therapist, who can act as both a mentor and external support. Through improving their quality of daily life, providing them with social opportunities in their community and facilitating total body wellness recovery, physical therapy has even been shown to have similar effects to antidepressants for those diagnosed with clinical depression. 

The Importance Of Routines

For those who suffer from chronic pain, many patients experience feelings of depression when they aren’t able to perform daily tasks or are only limited to certain activities. When an illness becomes chronic, these feelings can last for a long time, so reducing pain and restoring function plays an integral part in fostering good mental health. Physical therapy can help you restore strength and even offer everyday tactics to avoid pain or further injury. With a regularly scheduled exercise routine, your brain learns your body’s limits, helps retrain your muscles and reinforces movement patterns that will enable you to be more active with less pain. As you get stronger, your nervous system will trust what movements are safe and which actions may cause harm. 

PT Benefits For Specific Behavioral and Mental Disorders

Physical therapy has also demonstrated a positive impact on patients with schizophrenia, anxiety and depression. In fact, during a randomized clinical trial, therapists concluded that one to two hours of weekly exercise improved patients’ cardiovascular fitness and reduced the need for intense cognitive treatments. As for more common disorders such as anxiety and depression, exercise significantly reduces symptoms and has been shown to decrease the risks of other severe health conditions like metabolic syndrome, heart disease or even cancer. Overall, exercise improves your body image, stimulates constructive coping strategies and fosters a stable sense of independence.


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