Is exercise one of the missing links to mental wellness?

Posted: April 03, 2014

THE POSITIVE effects of working out extend far beyond the gym. As you might have guessed, physicians, researchers and mental-health practitioners have long discovered the positive relationship between exercise and mental health.

More than a decade ago, researchers at Duke University released a groundbreaking study demonstrating that 30 minutes of brisk exercise three times a week is just as effective as drug therapy in relieving the symptoms of major depression in the short term, and also that continued exercise reduces the chances of the depression returning.

While that's good news for everybody, that information is particularly good news for the African-American community, which suffers disproportionately from mental-health issues, as well as chronic and life-threatening stress.

Given America's history, it should come as no surprise that African-Americans, the most stigmatized group, continue to face chronically high levels of stress, which can lead to both psychological and physiological health problems.

Hundreds of years of brutality, chattel enslavement, lynchings, Jim Crow laws, miseducation, implicit and explicit racial bias and other oppressive measures used against African-Americans continue to wreak havoc on the mental and physical health of far too many.

In fact, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Health disparities between African-Americans and other racial and ethnic populations are striking and apparent in life expectancy, death rates, infant mortality and other measures of health status and risk conditions and behaviors."

Translation: African-Americans suffer at much greater rates than other Americans from all preventable diseases like heart disease, stroke, cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stress and mental-health-related conditions.

One unlikely, though not unsurprising, explanation for this can be found in a recent study published in the New York Times by Inna Gaisler-Salomon, a psychobiology professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, which confirms that not only does stress experienced during a person's lifetime correlate with stress-related psychological health problems, it also shows up in that "person's offspring - and even in the offspring's offspring."

Though Gaisler-Salomon's work focuses primarily on Holocaust survivors, it also has indirect implicit significance for African-Americans, too. This stunning research, on the children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors, demonstrates that they have "greater-than-average chances of having stress-related psychiatric illnesses, like post-traumatic stress disorder, even without being exposed to higher levels of stress in their own lives."

Undoubtedly, these findings suggest that mental-health conditions and post-traumatic stress disorders are a far greater threat to health than previously known.

That's why this weekend state Sen. Vincent Hughes, Temple University's Center for Bioethics, Urban Health and Policy and the Black Women's Health Alliance will present "Breaking the Silence on Mental Wellness: Real Talk. Real Help. Real Solutions." It is a two-day summit aimed at shattering the stigma associated with psychiatric illnesses.

"Mental-wellness issues take a tremendous toll on our community due to the associated stigma, the misunderstanding of the nature of the illnesses and the lack of clarity about how to identify and access available, appropriate services and resources," Hughes said. "The purpose of this summit is to open the discussion and provide resources and solutions that are readily available, because if we don't talk about the problem, we can't get to the solution."

The event will take place from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Temple University School of Medicine (3500 N. Broad St., at Tioga). All activities are free. For a list of workshops and speakers, visit senatorhughes.com/bts.


Kimberly Garrison is a wellness coach and owner of One on One Ultimate Fitness in Philadelphia. Her column appears Wednesdays.

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