Those who exercise regularly know the many physical benefits of staying fit. The Mayo Clinic recommends beginning (or maintaining) a fitness routine for numerous health conditions including stroke, metabolic syndrome, diabetes, arthritis, and as part of a healthy weight loss program. Exercise to boost energy and promote better sleep is also suggested.
The benefits of exercise go beyond supporting the physical body, however. It’s not uncommon to feel better about our appearance and ourselves when we exercise regularly, and confidence and self-esteem are often improved. There’s a scientific reason for this. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals and may contribute to feeling happier and being more relaxed.
Way back In 1969, a researcher found that physically unfit people were more depressed than “fit” people. This study was the first to look at the links between exercise and mental health. It was groundbreaking at the time and sparked decades of research. We’re learning more and more about the effects physical exercise has on the functions of our brains and our moods.
Regular exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms or slow the progression of stress, depression, anxiety, dementia, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and autism. A very impressive fact, and there is evidence that, for certain types of depression, regular exercise may be as effective as medication or psychological therapy.
Both strength training and aerobic training have been proven to have positive effects on people with depression. Some researchers say that moderate-intensity aerobic training and high-intensity strength training may be the most effective exercises to provide positive mental and brain health benefits.
Regular exercise helps protect the nervous system and increase metabolism, oxygenation, and blood flow to the brain. Exercise also improves our mood by activating certain areas of the brain, and induces the release of neurotransmitters (and other brain chemicals). MedicineNet.com defines a neurotransmitter as “a chemical that is released from a nerve cell which thereby transmits an impulse from a nerve cell to another nerve, muscle, organ, or other tissue.” So basically, neurotransmitters act as messengers throughout the body.
These chemicals can motivate us to continue to exercise regularly. This helps to stimulate new neurons, and can result in improved neuroplasticity (the ability of the brain to change itself). People who exercise tend to have lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol than sedentary people, and the effects of chronically elevated cortisol levels include (but are not limited to): lowered immunity, hypertension, high blood sugar, carbohydrate cravings, metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, bone loss and reduced libido. All of these chemicals are positive for both brain health and mental health.
Animal studies show that exercise increases the feel-good brain chemicals called “endorphins,” and also affects the production and release of the three key neurotransmitters: serotonin (makes us happy), norepinephrine (supports alertness and stress), and dopamine (enhances motivation and behaviour).
They also show that certain parts of the brain have higher levels of serotonin after exercise, and that frequent exercise increases the amount of serotonin produced and used in the brain. Similarly, exercise increases dopamine levels in different parts of animal brains. If you’ve ever felt that exercise helps with your mood and memory, this may be partly due to the effect it has on dopamine.
While regular exercise can promote mental health, excessive exercise and overtraining, can have adverse effects. Added pressure to perform can be detrimental to mental health. This has been seen among elite athletes.
Regular exercise is a way to help boost our moods and ability to think and remember well. Taking part in physical activity can also help build healthy relationships with family or friends while having fun.
Remember to check with your doctor before starting any new exercise program, especially if you haven't been active for some time, have chronic health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes or arthritis, or if you have any concerns.
Find a physical activity you enjoy, and just do it. The benefits are amazing!
This is Janice, inspiring change