Why Exercise is Beneficial to our Mental Health
While the physical benefits of exercise are fairly well-known, the impact on our mental health sometimes goes unnoticed, or unappreciated. However, the benefits of physical activity on our brains are quite impressive.
Exercise is a Mood Enhancer
When we engage in physical activity, our brains automatically release endorphins which are among one of the many chemicals of the brain known as neurotransmitters whose job is to transmit electric signals throughout the nervous system. The job of Endorphins is to reduce our perception of pain or discomfort by interacting with the opiate receptors in our brains, similar to how morphine or other painkillers work. So exercise can literally act as a natural pain reliever, making us feel happier while also improving our immune response overall. This also means less stress or feelings of sadness, and the reason why so many people feel a sense of happiness after tackling a difficult workout.
Exercise is a Natural Treatment for Anxiety and Depressive Disorders
According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless or simply unmotivated in general; feelings that can last days, weeks or months. And it can affect anyone, with 3 to 5 percent of people suffering from some sort of major depressive disorder. But the good news is that depression is completely treatable. One way to naturally treat depressive disorders in both the short term and long term, which also includes Bipolar disorder and Dysthymia, is through physical activity. One study cited by the American Psychological Association actually compared the effects of physical exercise to antidepressant medications, finding that exercise helped in preventing relapse long-term as well short-term mood enhancement after just five minutes of moderate exercise. More aggressive weight or resistance training programs may even have a more significant impact.
Those suffering with anxiety or panic disorder can also benefit from physical activity. When someone suffers from panic disorder, they have a “fight or flight” response to situations that do not require this type of response, causing sweating, a racing heartbeat and other uncomfortable sensations. When exercising, the body produces a similar reaction (sweating, short of breath, etc.) which actually helps to train the person suffering from anxiety to not fear those sensations and instead learn to associate those sensations with a pleasurable experience, and not one of fear.
Overall, physical activity makes people feel a stronger sense of purpose by engaging in a meaningful task, and the effects are even better if you can find a workout buddy. After finishing a workout, the sense of accomplishment felt can generally improve someone’s outlook on life and boost self-confidence and self-esteem (ideal for anyone dealing with depressive disorders or anxiety)
Exercise helps to Reduce Insomnia
Physical exercise can help to increase relaxation, normalize our circadian rhythms and regulate body temperature. Specifically, physical exercise has been linked with chronic insomnia, which is a disorder where people have extreme difficulty sleeping or maintaining sleep. In a number of studies cited by the Sleep Foundation, there is evidence that suggests physical exercise improves the sleep of people suffering from insomnia. Looking at moderate exercise, the studies found that it took less time to fall to asleep and the time slept overall was increased when compared to nights when they did not exercise. After 4 to 24 weeks of exercise, those in the study suffering from insomnia were able to fall asleep quicker and get a better night’s sleep in general than before they began incorporating exercise into their day-to-day lives.
When it comes to general sleep habits, exercise regulates the body temperature by triggering an increase in body temperature during exercise, which then drops immediately after, promoting sleep. By regulating the natural circadian rhythms of our bodies, exercise also promotes sleep because our body “clocks” are more regulated, meaning that we can get a more restful night’s sleep because we are tired at the end of our day, instead of wired.
Exercise Improves our Response to Stress
Physical activity can improve our response to stress, but it can also reduce our stress levels altogether. By increasing the concentration of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brains response to stressful situations, exercise allows you more effectively handle yourself in general times of stress. This chemical works like adrenaline, making you more responsive, aware and alert.
In addition, exercise boosts the natural “feel good” neurotransmitter of the brain, called endorphins. Endorphins work to reduce stress by promoting an overall sense of happiness and well-being. When our bodies experience positive stimuli, food for example, the hypothalamus in the brain calls for endorphins, producing a “euphoric” or pleasurable feeling. Endorphins can also act as pain killers and work to combat depressive disorders as well, further reducing stress.
Exercise Sharpens Memory
Physical activity can boost our ability to learn new things, and also our ability to store and retain memories. By increasing the production of cells in the hippocampus of the brain (responsible for memory and learning), physical exercise actually boosts our brain power and brain development. Just as exercise gets your heart pumping, it also gets your brain pumping, and the physical effects of exercise are partially the reason for the positive effects on our brains. Physical exercise reduces inflammation of the body overall, affecting the health of our brain cells and promoting growth of new blood vessels in the brain. And more blood flow means a sharper working brain overall.
Harvard Health cites a number of studies that suggest that the parts of the brain that control memory and thinking (the medial temporal cortex and the prefrontal cortex) also have greater volume in those who exercise, versus people who do not. So how much exercise would yield these memory boosting benefits? These studies found that just about 120 minutes of moderate physical exercise is all you need.
Exercise Prevents Cognitive Decline
Degenerative disorders of the brain like Alzheimer’s can be devastating for the sufferer but also family and friends as they watch their loved ones slip from them. These disorders affect the brain by killing off brain cells one by one, shrinking the brain overall. Physical exercise can help to combat cognitive decline that leads to degenerative disorders of the brain, but it’s important to start sooner than later. Experts agree that exercising regularly between the ages of 25 and 45 can boost the chemicals in the brain supporting the hippocampus and preventing degeneration. However, evidence suggests that, despite the again process, our brains retain the ability to be strengthened and maintained through the process of neuroplasticity, also known as brain plasticity, that refers to changes in the neural pathways of the brain as a result of changes in our behavior, environments, emotions, etc. In this way, physical exercise can also be beneficial for older people already suffering from cognitive functioning disorders by improving executive functioning, allowing these individuals to enjoy activities requiring higher levels of cognitive functioning, which also improves their mood and general outlook on life.