The physical benefits of exercise- improving physical condition and fighting disease- have long been established, and physicians always encourage staying physically active. Exercise is also considered vital for maintaining mental fitness, and it can reduce stress. Studies show that it is very effective at reducing fatigue, improving alertness and concentration, and at enhancing overall cognitive function. This can be especially helpful when stress has depleted your energy or ability to concentrate.
The most prominent benefit that physical exercise offers for our mental health is the release of feel-good brain chemicals like endorphins. Endorphins relieve pain and stress in the mind and give us an overarching feeling of enjoyment during physical activity and other pastimes. You might have heard about “the runner’s high” – this essentially describes when exercise releases endorphins into your body. Endorphins are one of the many neurotransmitters in our brain that determine how we think and feel about certain situations. When these are activated during exercise, they trigger the release of helpful chemicals throughout the body which not only help us get through the activity at hand, but also improve our general mood. These chemicals include: Dopamine, Norepinephrine, Serotonin, and Adrenaline. This release of chemicals along with several other benefits exercise offers is why it is such a useful course of treatment for a variety of mental health issues.
Of the chemicals listed above, serotonin is one to expand on more deeply. Serotonin is the chemical most antidepressants target in an effort to improve people’s mood. While around 75% of our body’s serotonin is stored in our gut to regulate intestinal movements, it’s the 25% in our brains that we’re interested in for mental health exercises. According to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE), exercise increases the function of serotonin in humans. The reason is two-fold – first, motor activity improves the rate at which serotonin is fired around the brain. Secondly, it also enhances the amount of tryptophan in the brain, which is an amino acid used to create serotonin.
This release of serotonin is one of the many ways exercise and mental health come together to provide effective, lasting benefits like:
· Training the brain - Exercise not only encourages the brain to release helpful, positive chemicals, but it can increase the size of our hippocampus, the part responsible for our memory. Furthermore, more connections between our nerve cells develop, helping to protect our minds from injury and mental illness.
· Natural energy source - While starting an exercise routine can feel energy-sapping, over time exercise becomes a natural way to improve energy levels. This fights against the draining effects that mental health problems can cause and motivates us to get out of bed and embrace the day.
· Release tension - Sometimes feelings of low mood can be caused by persistent aches and pains in our muscles, bones and other areas of the body. Aerobic like yoga or Pilates in particular can ease the tension in these areas and decrease any discomfort, making it a great type of exercise for mental health.
· Exercise and achievement - Exercise is great for giving us goals to aim for, to one day turn that kilometre-long jog into a mile-long one. Pushing for an achieving those goals gives us feelings of accomplishment and self-worth, which in turn makes us feel happier about our lives in general.
· Lose weight, gain self-esteem - Typical by-products of regular exercise are weight loss and muscle development. If you struggle with self-esteem issues, this can help you feel more comfortable with the way you look and how you’re getting there, as well as establish a healthier, balanced appetite.
· A good night’s sleep - If getting your eight hours of shut-eye is a constant battle, regular exercise as part of your evening routine can help relax your muscles and tire you out. The ability to rest helps you find the sleep you’ve been missing, and provides a boost to your mind’s health.
· A welcome distraction - Sitting too long with our thoughts can hurt our mental wellbeing. Exercise allows you to break any negative thought patterns that feed your low mood, giving you something else to focus on as an effective, beneficial coping mechanism.
· Outlet for frustrations - We all get angry and frustrated on occasion, and finding a healthy outlet for those feelings is important to ensure they don’t affect your health or personal relationships. By releasing serotonin, endorphins and other feel-good chemicals, exercise helps the frustration to subside.