The importance of exercise for mental health has been well-documented, but how exactly does physical exercise improve and affect mental wellbeing? There have been numerous studies that have shown that exercise reduces stress and can help fight depression and anxiety. It can also increase self-esteem and confidence, while reducing anger too. Meanwhile, it’s also been proven that exercise can improve sleep and boost brainpower – and that’s not even mentioning the additional physiological benefits of weight control, lower blood pressure, reduced risk of diabetes, increased energy and greater bone density and muscle mass.
But, how exactly does using exercise to improve your mental health work? Well, the answer can be found in the brain. When you exercise daily, the brain will begin to exhibit changes such as neural growth, reduced inflammation and a release of powerful chemicals that will leave you feeling happy, relaxed and positive. These feel-good hormones include:
- Serotonin (the body’s natural feel-good chemical): This is a key hormone that helps to regulate mood and memory. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, which is a chemical messenger that transmits signals across nerve endings in the body. It’s mainly found in the gut and helps to aid healthy digestion. It also improves bone health, blood clotting and sexual function. Interestingly, one of serotonin’s other jobs is to make a hormone called melatonin, which is essential to getting a good night’s sleep. While exercise is a great way to increase your serotonin levels, you can also give them a boost through the food you eat and increasing your exposure to sunlight.
- Norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline): Norepinephrine is a hormone that’s produced by the adrenal glands. Similarly to serotonin, it also functions as a neurotransmitter and is known for helping the body respond to stress and exercise. Combined with epinephrine (adrenaline), these two hormones regulate heart rate and the amount of blood circulating around the body. In addition, the hormones also regulate blood pressure, break down fat and increase blood sugar levels to provide more energy. Norepinephrine also helps you wake up, focus on tasks and improves memory function. Low levels of norepinephrine have been associated with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and depression.
- Dopamine (motivation and reward hormone): This neurotransmitter controls your movement and emotional responses. Studies have reported that an insufficient production of dopamine can lead to Parkinson’s Disease. It’s also been found that dopamine helps to aid the flow of information to the part of the brain responsible for thought and emotion. During exercise, dopamine teams up with the epinephrine and norepinephrine hormones to activate the fight-or-flight response.
- Endorphins (pain control): Endorphins are a large group of peptides that are produced by the central nervous system and the pituitary gland. Endorphins activate the opiate receptors in our brains and help reduce pain and boost pleasure. Endorphins are often released in response to exercise, eating and sex. As they are a natural feel-good reward system for our body, they help us to repeat the positive activity, which in turn ensures our survival. In addition, endorphins are also known for alleviating depression, reducing stress and anxiety, boosting self-esteem, helping us manage our weight and reducing pain.
- Endocannabinoids – These neurotransmitters are known for helping you feel amazing after a workout. This is because exercise increases the levels of endocannabinoids in the bloodstream. Unlike endorphins, which don’t cross the blood-brain barrier, endocannabinoids can move easily through, helping to promote feelings of calmness and reduced anxiety.
- Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF): High intensity exercise can elevate levels of BDNF, which aids in the production of new cells in the brain and helps to improve cognitive function. The production of BDNF is closely related to the production of Human Growth Hormone and Insulin-like Growth Factor, which both help to build and repair muscle, support the immune system and promote fat metabolism. Reduced BDNF has been implicated in cases of depression.
As you can see, exercise isn’t just about improving muscle mass or slimming down body fat. It can be an invaluable tool to deliver vital hormones and chemicals that will improve your brain function and mental health. Aerobic exercise is essentially the equivalent of giving your brain a magic pill to improve your mood, act as a natural painkiller, reduce stress and anxiety, improve your self-esteem and make you look (and feel) great.
Meanwhile, resistance training helps to alleviate other common 21st century health issues, including lower back problems, knee complaints, bad posture, low self-esteem and depression. Improving your self-esteem is a key way to see both physiological and psychological improvements. Meanwhile, regular exercise for mental health helps to boost positive moods and lower depression rates. Plus, you’ll also see improvements in sleep, muscle tone, strength, heart health and reduced body fat.
TIPS FOR STARTING EXERCISE FOR MENTAL HEALTH
- Exercise should always be fun. Choose the activities you enjoy and vary your workouts to prevent boredom setting in.
- Try to include both resistance training and aerobic workouts into your programme. Think of weight training as a way to strengthen your body so that you can enjoy the activities you like without the worry of injury or pain.
- Always eat healthily to support your workouts.
- Getting an early night is the perfect way to set yourself up for success the next day with an early morning workout – you’ll feel amazing all day with the release of those feel-good hormones!
- Never ignore pain. Don’t continue to exercise if you feel any niggles or twinges. After all, working out should be fun!