‘Exercise is good for you’ – we hear this every day, but it is still difficult for many of us to turn well-intentioned advice into burnt calories. JCU’s Lisa Simmons is an expert in helping people improve their physical and mental health through exercise.
For Lisa Simmons, who teaches Sport and Exercise Science at JCU Townsville, exercise is a natural thing. “I always say you should exercise like you brush your teeth,” Lisa says. “Sedentary behaviour is one of the key contributors to the development of conditions, like diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.”
But there are other downsides to spending one’s free time exclusively on the couch. “Even some of the psychological and cognitive conditions, like dementia and mental health, can all be somehow linked back to physical inactivity,” Lisa says. “So, technically, we should be exercising like we brush our teeth.”
Improving mental health in the gym
Exercise has been proven to be effective not only in cancer treatment and substance abuse, but also in the treatment of mental health issues. For mental health patients, exercise has never really been considered as a treatment modality. “However, the research is pretty clear in that it can be as potent as some of the medications that are prescribed,” Lisa says.
“In itself, if you can achieve small goals through physical activity and exercise attainments then you get a sense that you can achieve elsewhere,” Lisa says. “So, you are building self-efficacy, and you are regulating those neurotransmitters within the brain. I think it is very powerful in helping people cope.”
One of the possible outcomes would be that mental health patients might need less medication. “Everybody is different, as an individual, but the research is saying that it can have very similar outcomes to medication,” Lisa says.
Mental health therapy and research in Townsville
JCU is connected with the hospital and the community health services in Townsville. This provides opportunities for JCU Exercise Physiology students to be part of programs that improve access to services, particularly in mental health.
Exercise for mental health patients is very individualised. For some it is simply a walk in the park, while others are more adventurous. “It really depends,” Lisa says. “Some people are very receptive to a gym environment, and they really like it.”
Getting mental health patients to engage in exercise is an important first step. “And once you get them doing it and you create that behaviour, then it tends to open the door for other things,” Lisa says. “Our end goal is lifelong participation in exercise.”
How much exercise do we really need?
Of course, we shouldn’t merely leave exercise to others. Lisa Simmons laughs when she hears the question ‘how much exercise do we actually need?’. “The good news is, it’s not a lot,” she says. Lisa explains that people may want to aim for about 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous continuous activity per week. This a bit over twenty minutes per day.
An example would be to go for a walk. And you don’t need fancy gadgets, like a fitness watch. “Moderate activity means you should still be able to talk to someone, but you might get a little bit of breathlessness,” Lisa says. “‘Vigorous’ exercise is when you feel increased breathlessness when you are talking.”
For those who do have a fitness watch, the ideal heart rate depends on the individual. The maximum suggested heart rate is 220 minus your age. Moderate exercise would be half of the result, and vigorous exercise about 70 per cent. For example, a 20-year-old would want to target a heart rate of at least 100 beats per minute for moderate exercise and a bit more than 140 beats per minute for vigorous exercise.
After all, exercising is easy if you make it a habit – just like brushing your teeth.
Find out more about Sport and Exercise Sciences
JCU Sport and Exercise Science is a leader in enhancing physical performance for everyone, which includes people with chronic and mental health conditions as well as elite athletes. Find out what you can achieve with JCU Sport and Exercise Science.
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