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Fitness Focus for Mental Health Gains Priority in Corporate America

Story at-a-glance -

  • Corporate America is catching on that by supporting workers’ mental health, employees are happier and more productive
  • Employees who participated in work-sponsored meditation and yoga classes had lower stress levels, better sleep, and increased productivity
  • If your employer has yet to implement a wellness program, you and a group of colleagues may want to introduce the idea to the human resources department or another key decision-maker in the company

By Dr. Mercola

One in four adults struggles with mental illness every year, and a survey by Employee Benefit News magazine revealed 31 percent of respondents felt mental illness was the number one cause of lost productivity and increased absenteeism in the workplace.1

Fortunately, corporate America is catching on that by supporting workers’ mental health, employees are happier and more productive. One key way of doing this is by offering fitness classes and other wellness programs, and giving workers time during the workday to take part.

When the insurance company Aetna started a wellness program with meditation and yoga classes, for instance, employees who participated in at least one class reported a 28 percent reduction in stress levels, a 20 percent improvement in sleep quality, and 62 more minutes of productivity per week.2

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that stress costs American businesses $300 billion annually3 – so a simple intervention such as fitness classes could easily save billions a year.

What Can Fitness Do for Your Mental Health?

Your mental health is closely linked to your physical health, which is why exercise can have such profound effects on your emotional health, behavior, and mood. This is true of both mind-body exercises, such as yoga, and other fitness routines, such as, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and strength training.

Yoga, for instance, has been shown to help with a variety of common psychiatric disorders. A meta-analysis of more than 100 studies looking at the effect of yoga on mental health found the practice to have a positive effect on:4

  • Mild depression
  • Sleep problems
  • Schizophrenia
  • ADHD

Some of the studies suggest yoga may have a similar effect to antidepressants and psychotherapy by influencing neurotransmitters and boosting serotonin. Additional research has also found that yoga reduces anxiety and aggression among prison inmates.

After doing yoga once a week for 10 weeks, participants reported feeling less stressed, and also scored better on tests of executive control, indicating a higher degree of thoughtfulness and attention to their surroundings. If yoga can help in the high-stress environment of prison, it can likely help stress in the workplace as well.

As noted by Scientific American:5

"Several studies have shown that yoga helps to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression in prisoners, and… a study at the University of Oxford has found that it also increases focus and, crucially, decreases impulsivity—a known factor in much prison violence.”

Mind-Body Exercise May Calm Cellular Stress Response Genes

If you’ve had a tough day at work it can be hard to “turn off” the stress, even after you’ve returned home. This allows work stress to infiltrate your home and personal life, which can then easily transform into chronic stress.

By engaging in mind-body exercises, however, you can help to stop the stress response at the cellular level. A report by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS), for instance, revealed that meditative practices such as yoga, qigong, and many others can alter your genetic expression, through its beneficial effects on your mind.6

Examples of genetic effects obtained through yoga and other meditative practices include the down-regulation of genes associated with the pathway responsible for the breaking down of proteins and cellular stress response genes.

Expression of certain heat-shock proteins is increased and immune function is amped up through a variety of genetic changes. One study investigating genetic changes triggered by the relaxation response (RR) determined that meditative or mindfulness practices affect no less than 2,209 different genes! As reported by ISIS:

"Yogic meditative practices were shown to have positive effects on the heart rate, blood pressure, and low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and decrease the levels of salivary cortisol, the stress hormone.

These findings are consistent with a down regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, both of which are known to be over-activated by the stressful western lifestyle.

Now, a series of new studies on gene expression profiles in immune cells circulating in the blood are showing that yogic/meditative practices have profound effects at the molecular level."

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Tai Chi May Improve Both Physical and Psychosocial Health

The 2,000-year-old Chinese practice of tai chi is a branch of Qigong -- exercises that harness the qi (life energy). It’s been linked to numerous health benefits, including improvements in the quality of life of breast cancer patients and Parkinson's sufferers, and has shown promise in treating sleep problems and high blood pressure. However, it’s also heralded for its benefits to mental health. Often described as "meditation in motion" or "moving meditation," the activity takes your body through a specific set of graceful movements. 

Your body is constantly in motion and each movement flows right into the next. While practicing tai chi, your mind is meant to stay focused on your movements, relaxation, and deep breathing, while distracting thoughts are ignored. One study found that tai chi was beneficial for relieving fibromyalgia symptoms, including depression, and improving quality of life among such patients. The researchers explained:7

Mind–body interventions may improve psychosocial well-being, increase confidence, and help patients overcome fear of pain. Furthermore, controlled breathing and movements promote a restful state and mental tranquility, which may raise pain thresholds and help break the ‘pain cycle.’ All these components may influence neuroendocrine and immune function as well as neurochemical and analgesic pathways that lead to enhanced physical, psychological, and psychosocial well-being and overall quality of life…”

Tai chi is also known to play a role in brain health. In older adults, those who practiced tai chi had greater connectivity in areas of the brain involved in decision-making and attention compared to those who were sedentary.8 Dr. Chenchen Wang, the director of the Center for Complementary and Integrative Medicine at Tufts Medical Center, told the New York Times, tai chi “can improve both physical and psychosocial health.”9

Exercise Eases Anxiety Now and in the Future

Adding a regular exercise program to your life is likely to make you feel good each time you exercise plus enhance your mood, lessen anxiety, and induce more feelings of calm in the future, too. The benefits are both immediate and long term. One study found, for instance, that while many people started an exercise program to lose weight and improve their appearance, they continued to exercise because of the benefits to their well-being.10

Research also shows that exercising creates new, excitable neurons along with new neurons designed to release the GABA neurotransmitter, which inhibits excessive neuronal firing, helping to induce a natural state of calm. While the creation of excitable neurons via exercise would ordinarily induce anxiety, exercise fixes this problem by also creating calm-inducing GABA-releasing neurons.11  Commonly prescribed anti-anxiety drugs like Ativan, Xanax, and Valium actually exert a calming effect in this same manner, by boosting the action of GABA. What’s more, exercising mice still displayed increased calm even when they hadn’t exercised for 24 hours, so the calming effect lasts.

Virtually Any Form of Exercise Is Beneficial for Mental Health

While recent studies support the use of yoga, tai chi, and other mind-body exercises to improve mental health (along with providing many other health benefits, such as promoting flexibility and core muscles, alleviating back pain, and more), I think it’s important to incorporate a variety of exercises into your routine for optimal health results. Ideally, you’ll want a comprehensive fitness program with high-intensity interval training like Peak Fitness and resistance training, in addition to flexibility and core-building exercises like yoga or Foundation Training. Regular walking, about 10,000 steps a day, in addition to your exercise program is also beneficial for mental and physical health.

Exercise of virtually any variety affects a neurotransmitter that has an antidepressant-like effect on your brain while helping to decrease muscle tension.12 Exercise also guards against the adverse physical effects of stress. During periods of high stress, those who exercised less frequently had 37 percent more physical symptoms than those who exercised more often.13  Exercise also boosts levels of potent brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, which may help buffer some of the effects of stress.

Many avid exercisers also feel a sense of euphoria after a workout, sometimes known as the “runner’s high.” It can be quite addictive, in a good way, once you experience just how good it feels to get your heart rate up and your body moving.

Examples of Wellness in the Workplace

As far as work-life balance goes, the US lags far behind most other developed countries. The European Union, for instance, limits work hours by laws, while others require paid leave when children are born, fostered, or adopted. Denmark gives "nurture days" to workers with younger children so they can take time off to go to school plays, doctor appointments, and parent-teacher conferences – events that often get missed by US workers.

That being said, some beneficial changes are occurring, even in the US. For instance, certain cities are passing tax incentives to companies that promote telework and flexible work hours. Other cities are exploring "right to request" flexible work laws, a program that has already been successfully implemented in the UK (it gives employees the right to put together a plan to get their work done in a flexible way that an employer must accept as long as it won't hurt the business).

The fact is, private companies spend close to $45 billion a year on employee-related medical expenses.14 It's a financial burden many companies can no longer bear. Chronically sick employees can be crippling to businesses, both large and small, and can even lead to layoffs, company closures, and bankruptcy. In the end, everybody suffers. Establishing flexible work hours helps, but so too does establishing company wellness programs that encourage and support healthy lifestyle choices among employees. They can help to empower employees by offering simple tools that focus on preventative health. Below is an example of the type of benefits that we offer our employees at

  1. Fitness Programs
    • Onsite gym with a variety of workout equipment and free-weights
    • Fitness classes for yoga, high-intensity interval and strength training
    • Onsite trainers and class instructors to help employees customize their workouts
    • Paid off-site gym membership
    • Organized office team sports and activities: bowling, softball, group walks during breaks, bicycling, weekend hikes, etc.
    • Encourage staff to use the stairs instead of taking the elevator
    • Provide a secure site for bicycles to encourage cycling commuters
  2. Healthy Work Place Food Choices
    • Catered office lunches by local health food stores providing organic foods
    • Offer gift certificates to local organic restaurants and/or health food stores
    • Provide organic tea and coffee
    • Replace processed food and soda vending machine choices with sparkling/mineral water, nuts, dried fruits, and other healthier choices
  3. Educational Seminars and Classes (At Lunch or After Hours)
    • Offer classes by local chefs on how to prepare healthy meals, preparing proper food portions, and how to create healthy snacks
    • Offer educational courses by local experts and/or authors on specific related topics, such as:
    Comprehensive weight loss program leading to sustainable lifestyle changes How healthy foods improve hormonal balance
    How to avoid and reverse diabetes How healthy foods and natural hygiene improve dental health
    Risks of a fast food diet Foods associated with allergies and migraines
    What are the best types of dairy products? Stress-management strategies
    How fluoride in water affects health Infant and child wellness, including risks vs. benefits of vaccines
  4. Mental and Emotional Tune-ups
    • Onsite health clinics offering chiropractic, physical therapy, chair massage, nutritionists, etc.
    • Discounts or free services provided by an alliance of off-site specialists
    • Employee Assistant Program providing confidential access for employees and their immediate family members to professional counseling services for short-term help in confronting such personal challenges as alcohol and other substance abuse, marital and family difficulties, financial or legal issues, and emotional distress
    • Also provide appropriate referrals to community and private services for long-term challenges

If your employer has yet to implement such options, you (or even better you and a group of your colleagues) may want to introduce the idea to the human resources department or another key decision-maker in the company. You might want to let them know that IBM saved $190 million in health-care costs after implementing an employee wellness program.15 The graphic below can also be helpful in illustrating how wellness programs build upon themselves to create healthier, happier employees, more productive workplaces and, ultimately, more successful corporations.

fitness programs