What is the reason you exercise?
Is it because you want to lose weight? Is it to tone your muscles? Or, is it more simple, and you just want to get fit?
If you answered ‘yes’ to any of the above, that’s great! Keep at it and you’ll be sure to reach your goals in no time.
But, guess what… You’re getting another amazing benefit from exercise that goes far beyond those you hope to achieve in a physical capacity.
That’s because, whether it’s your aim or not, exercise not only has significant benefits on your body - but, also, on your mind1.
Beat the blues with exercise
Depression and anxiety levels have reached record highs and experts believe this is, in part, due to the increased pressure of modern-day lifestyles. Changes in social patterns, poor diet, work stress and the general requirements of living in a fast-paced world are negatively affecting our mental health2.
According to the World Health Organisation, over 300 million people worldwide are living with serious depression that needs medical treatment. Whether you fall into the category of severe depression or, if you are generally susceptible to mood and emotional fluctuations coming from everyday stressors - exercise has a place to benefit your mental health and improve your stress tolerance3,4.
Although exercise may not be the first thing you think about when you’re feeling blue, tying up your running shoes and getting a little exercise can stimulate an immediate response in the brain that can make you feel like the situation is far more manageable3,4.
Many believe the impact of exercise on mood is due to a phenomenon called the ‘runner’s high’. Multiple studies have been conducted on this chemically associated feeling of elation, often credited to hormones called endorphins that are released from various parts of the body and brain when there’s an increase in perceived stress or pain is felt (both of which are caused by exercise!)5.
Additionally, hormones such as serotonin and noradrenaline, which are produced during exercise are responsible for improving general feelings of wellbeing as you work up a sweat5. But, even these hormonal influences are not the only reason you want to keep moving when you’re feeling out of sorts.
It actually comes back down to the physical effects exercise has. You see, exercise interestingly produces physical changes - not only on the body and muscles - but, also on the brain.
Exercise has a direct impact on how big your brain is
Besides having a positive chemical response in the brain due to the release of various hormones, exercise also appears to have a physical effect on the brain.
Just like it does with muscles tissue, researchers have shown that when you take part in a regular exercise routine, the volume of the brain in certain regions increases. As you exercise, your heart beats more effectively and oxygen- and nutrient-rich blood is more forcefully pushed through the body and brain6.
One of the areas of the brain that is of particular interest is the hippocampus, which is involved in learning, cognition, and emotional responses.
With and increased supply of nutrients to this area, there is a higher degree of support to keep the current cells healthy, as well as being able to promote the development of new blood vessels to grow. The new network of blood vessels further allows for an increase in oxygen and nutrient transportation to the area and, in doing so, the generation of even more new cells and support to keep them in top shape.
The effects not only improve memory and general cognitive function but, also apply to emotional response and mood regulation. Interestingly, researchers have discovered more about the link between a reduced capacity of the hippocampus to produce new blood vessels and the increased risk of mental health conditions like depression.
When new vessels are made, it allows the brain to process information in a more flexible way, which includes how the brain stores new memories. When the brain is able to easily access new memories, it can help you to overcome old memories and habits that may be linked to behaviours that lead to increased anxiety and depression7,8,9,10.
Any type of exercise can have this effect, as long as it gets your heart beating faster and your blood surging through your body. Even a quiet but intense stretch class, brisk walk, swim, Tai Chi session or any other form of exercise you feel like you can tackle in this frame of mind will do the trick.
The antidepressive effects of exercise can be felt immediately post-workout - and are best maintained by taking part in exercise at least three times per week ongoingly. It may sound like a commitment if you’re new to exercise, but achieving good mental health is about a long-term plan and should become more of a lifestyle and habitual action plan than a short-term fix.
The most important thing you can do to keep your mind and body strong is to get up, get off the couch, put on your gear, and get out there. Your body and mind will thank you!
- Mandolesi, L., et al. Effects of Physical Exercise on Cognitive Functioning and Wellbeing: Biological and Psychological Benefits. Frontiers in psychology. 2018. 9:509.
- Brinkmann, S. Diagnostic Cultures. 2016. London: Routledge.
- Gligoroska, J., & Manchevska, S . The effect of physical activity on cognition - physiological mechanisms. Mater Sociomed. 2012. 24(3):198–202.
- Heggelund, J., et al. High aerobic intensity training and psychological States in patients with depression or schizophrenia. Front Psychiatry. 2014. 5:148.
- Fuss, et al., et al. A runner’s high depends on cannabinoid receptors in mice. PNAS. 2015. 112(42):13105-13108.
- Cabral, D., et al. Improving cerebral oxygenation, cognition and autonomic nervous system control of a chronic alcohol abuser through a three-month running program. Addict. Behav. Rep. 2017. 6:83–89.
- Vivar, C., Potter, M., & van Praag, H. All about running: Synaptic plasticity, growth factors and adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Curr Top Behav Neurosci. 2013. 15:189–210.
- Basso, J., & Suzuki, W. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plasticity. 2017. 2(2):127-152.
- Chieffi, S., et al. Exercise Influence on Hippocampal Function: Possible Involvement of Orexin-A. Frontiers in physiology. 2017. 8:85.
- Erickson, K., et al. Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. PNAS. 2011. 108(7):3017-3022.