It’s been over a decade since Kevin Fischer, the executive director at the Michigan chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), lost his son, Dominique, to suicide.
Dominique, who was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia at age 20, was just 23 years old when he took his own life. Dominique’s mental health journey is something that Fischer shares with the community through his work with NAMI Michigan.
“There’s a difference in mental health and mental illness,” Fischer says. “When we talk about mental health, I always tell people we all have mental health. We don’t all have mental illness.”
Every year, though, almost 8 million kids are diagnosed with mental illness, he adds. As parents, we want our children to get the help and treatment they need, but we also want to do our part at home.
One way to help children who suffer from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses is to get moving.
How exercise helps
“I learned a lot on this journey with him and one of the things I learned was the importance of exercise, even for him with serious mental illness, with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which are serious brain disorders,” Fischer says.
Studies about mental health and exercise back up Fischer’s personal experience.
In fact, back in June 2021, the John W. Brick Mental Health Foundation released its Move Your Mental Health report, which is a compilation of three decades worth of information related to exercise and mental health. One thing is clear from the findings: exercise — whether it’s walking, lifting weights or doing yoga — helps mental and emotional well-being.
Furthermore, a study of 1.2 million people in the United States found that people who exercise report having 1.5 fewer poor mental health days each month than those who don’t. Those who participated in 45 minutes of exercise three to five days each week saw optimal mental health benefits.
Cycling, team sports and aerobic or gym activities showed the best results, however less rigorous activities — such as household chores — and mindfulness activities such as yoga were still beneficial.
How can you get your kids to exercise? Here’s some advice from Fischer.
When you exercise, your body releases endorphins, which block pain and increase sensations of pleasure. In addition to endorphins, endocannabinoids, which are responsible for the feeling of calm and euphoria, are released, along with dopamine, which plays a role in regulating mood, sleep and more.
Simply put, you feel better when you work out.
It wasn’t always easy to encourage Dominque to go to the gym, but once he was there and completed a workout, there was a clear difference in his mood.
“After we played basketball or he worked out on the elliptical, even the brightness in his eyes changed. He walked differently. He had a bounce to his step that he didn’t have when we walked into the gym,” Fischer says. “It is tremendously powerful when we speak about the effects that it has on our mental health.”
These days, Fischer makes it a point to exercise daily because a sedentary lifestyle can intensify mental illness, he notes. You don’t need to be an athlete to reap the rewards of exercise. You just have to get moving for at least 30 minutes per day, he suggests.
“I would try to find something the child enjoys or previously enjoyed because sometimes when you’re dealing with depression or anxiety or even more serious mental illness, one of the symptoms is you no longer enjoy the things that you used to,” he says.
Maybe your child was a dancer before or an all-star athlete and doesn’t seem interested anymore. Try to encourage her to show you a dance move or two — maybe a TikTok dance — or get him to throw the ball around with you.
“We have to prioritize it and make that just as important,” Fischer says of exercise.
No matter what your child likes, whether it’s working up a sweat playing virtual reality games, doing yoga, weight-lifting, dancing or running — make exercise a family affair.
Content sponsored by Ethel and James Flinn Foundation. Visit flinnfoundation.org.