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.
How does exercise affect mental health?
These are anxious times we live in. Fires, floods, droughts, pandemics…it’s enough to keep you up at night and get your head spinning. Did you know that exercise is an effective strategy for natural anxiety relief? You can exercise to reduce stress, sleep better, and improve cognitive function. Find out how it works below.
1. Natural Anxiety Relief
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.
2. 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”.(2) 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.
Dr. Jackson 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.
According to the American Psychological Association, 62% of adults who exercise or walk to manage stress consider it very or extremely effective.
How much should you exercise to reduce stress?
Dr. 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.”
3. Exercise AND 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.”(3)
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.
4. Exercise and Cognitive Function
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 maintaining a healthy diet, good sleep habits, and avoiding substances like tobacco and alcohol, exercise plays a primary role in keeping our brains young. What’s interesting is to think about how different kinds of physical activity affects our cognitive function.
One study published in BMC Geriatrics on exercise and cognitive function in aging adults differentiates between open-skilled exercise and closed-skilled exercise. Tennis, basketball, or fencing would be categorized as open-skilled, as the participant must constantly adapt to unpredictable situations. Closed-skilled exercise would be swimming, running or yoga, for example, where the environment and exercise are controlled and self-directed.
Not surprising: whether open or close-skilled, participants in the exercise group showed superior performance to those in the non-exercise group. Those in the closed-skilled group showed “better selective attention and visuospatial function while open-skilled physical activity was associated with better inhibition and cognitive flexibility”.
The logical conclusion would be that a variety of different types of physical activity would bring you the greatest benefits. Mix it up, try something new, and challenge yourself with the unfamiliar.
5. Exercise to Boost Energy
When you’re tired at the end of a long day, squeezing 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.
Research indicates that microbouts of physical activity have a significant impact on mood and energy levels. Any regular exercise is, of course, better for your overall health than a sedentary lifestyle, however, a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity compared results for adults walking 30 minutes in the morning at a moderate intensity vs. 5 minutes of moderate-intensity walking every hour. Not only did the microbout group show better results for their energy and mood, they also reported fewer food cravings at the end of the day.(4)
On Nutrition 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.(5) The connection between nutrition and mental health can no longer be ignored.
“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.
There are a variety of factors that contribute to your overall emotional wellbeing, but there’s no denying the link between exercise and mental health. Do what works for you. Whether it’s scheduling 30 min of fitness a day (or 5 minutes of moderate intensity fitness every hour), start reaping the benefits of exercise on mental health.