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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Healthcare Sciences

Publish Date

8 July 2020

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Improving mental health in the gym

‘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.”

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.

JCU Lecturer Lisa Simmons
Person running in park
According to JCU Sports and Exercise Lecturer Lisa Simmons, exercise is a powerful tool to help people cope with mental illness

Everybody is different, as an individual, but the research is saying that it can have very similar outcomes to medication.
Lisa Simmons, JCU Sport and Exercise Science Lecturer

Mental health therapy and research

JCU is connected with the hospital and 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.

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Featured researcher

Lisa Simmons

Senior Lecturer

Lisa is the Course Coordinator for the Bachelor Exercise Physiology (Clinical) and the Clinic Manager of the JCU Exercise Physiology Clinic and has been successful in the development of key relationships between JCU and Townsville hospital services. These research collaborations have included projects on the benefits of exercise interventions in cancer treatment, exercise as an effective therapy in mental health, group exercise intervention in cardiac rehabilitation and intradialysis exercise interventions in end-stage kidney disease.

Lisa’s academic and vocational expertise span areas such as exercise physiology, mental health, substance abuse, public health, health economics and clinical exercise physiology including occupational and vocational rehabilitation, drug and alcohol rehabilitation, mental health, cardiovascular disease and clinical education.