Exercise will help you to build muscle, improve cardiovascular health, and will inevitably affect your overall physique, but did you know that working out is just as good for your brain as it is for the rest of your body? Engaging in regular exercise has significant psychological benefits and is critical to support your overall wellbeing. Here are five ways fitness helps to improve mental health.
Exercise to Reduce Stress
Stress is your body’s reaction to a threatening situation, explains Dr. Erica Jackson Ph.D in her article “STRESS RELIEF: The Role of Exercise in Stress Management”.(1) Over time, your body learns how to cope with stress in certain ways. If you’ve become used to not-so-healthy coping mechanisms like losing sleep, eating too much sugar, etc. exercise can help you to retrain how your body reacts to stress.
She goes on to explain that “human and animal research indicates that being physically active improves the way the body handles stress because of changes in the hormone responses, and that exercise affects neurotransmitters in the brain such as dopamine and serotonin that affect mood and behaviors”. Put simply, as your body learns to cope with the stress it endures while working out, it can reapply what it learns to future stressful situations.
How much should you exercise to reduce stress?
Jackson recommends “150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic exercise per week”. This can be adjusted according to your needs. She continues by stating “breaking the exercise into two 10 to 15-minute sessions, one before work and one at lunch time when possible, can help combat stress throughout the day.”
Exercise to Reduce Anxiety and Depression
Depression and anxiety are probably the most widely recognized forms of mental illness and ones that touch many people. For those who don’t know what depression actually is, it’s probably easier to begin with what it isn’t. It’s not just a simple case of “feeling sad”. It is a debilitating illness that can have significant ramifications on the lives of those it affects. As it turns out, mental health and exercise are closely linked.
Science tells us that there are four chemicals that can have an impact on your happiness – serotonin, endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin. Any imbalance can have dramatic results. So, to address mental health challenges like depression and anxiety you need to work to address this imbalance. The imbalance can be corrected with pharmaceuticals, but the simple act of exercising can also help in the release of endorphins.(2) This is the chemical change in your brain that will increase your sense of wellbeing and can be triggered with just 15 minutes of exercise.
To maintain a healthy balance, you’ll need to find something that works for you, be it going for a run, taking a 30-minute stroll through your local park or riding your bike.
Depression is a serious illness. Exercise or changing your diet cannot replace professional medical treatment. Consult your doctor if you notice that you are experiencing typical symptoms of depression.
Exercise to Improve Sleep
Are you someone who often has a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep? Exercise is one of the most natural sleep remedies. Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, M.D., medical director of Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep at Howard County General Hospital, says, “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.”
Their studies show that exercise helps to improve your slow wave sleep, or the sleep that helps your brain recover and build memories from the day’s activities.
Time your workouts for your body
Not everybody has to wake up at the crack of dawn to get in a workout. If you’re more comfortable working out in the afternoon, that’s just fine. Just pay attention to your body’s rhythm and give yourself ample time to unwind before you go to sleep.
Exercise to Keep Your Brain Young
As we age, our bodies and our minds change and begin to deteriorate—it’s a simple fact of getting older. However, there are many things we can do to help safeguard cognitive function and keep our brains healthy far into old age. In addition to maining a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and avoiding substances like tobacco and alcohol, exercise plays a primary role in keeping our brains young.
Harvard Health Publishing says that, “animals who exercise regularly increase the number of tiny blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood to the region of the brain that is responsible for thought. Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells and increases the connections between brain cells (synapses). This results in brains that are more efficient, plastic, and adaptive, which translates into better performance in aging animals.”
Exercise to Boost Energy
When you’re tired at the end of a long day, getting in a workout can seem like an insurmountable challenge. However, working out can and will help you to boost your overall energy levels. Over time, you’ll find yourself less exhausted and more energized throughout the entire day.
A study conducted by the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Georgia, found that young adults who reported symptoms of fatigue reported higher levels of energy and reduced symptoms after only six-weeks of regular exercise.
A Note on Food and Mental Health
Exercise can certainly assist in improving or maintaining mental health, but is there anything else you can do? Recent research suggests that maintaining a healthy diet can have a significant impact on your mental wellbeing.(2)
“There is strong epidemiological evidence that poor diet is associated with depression. The reverse has also been shown, namely that eating a healthy diet rich in fruit, vegetables, fish and lean meat, is associated with reduced risk of depression.”
Of course, diet is key to performing well in your sport of choice, so the benefit is twofold. With a balanced diet you not only promote a healthier mind, you’re giving yourself the fuel to continue your therapeutic sport sessions.
To Sum it Up…
There are a variety of factors that play into your overall mental wellbeing, but exercise is clearly linked to a variety of factors that play into psychological health. Scheduling just 30 min of fitness a day (even split into two 15-min sessions) is a great way to get started reaping the mental benefits of fitness.