Most of us can understand the importance of exercise for our physical health and wellbeing, but, as a number of studies have demonstrated, it can also have positive impacts on our mental health.
These positive impacts on mental wellbeing include increased mental functioning, improved memory, improved sleep quality, a decreased risk of depression, and stress relief. Regular exercise can even help improve our ability to deal with stressful situations.
There is an old adage that instructs people to go outside and get some sun when they feel down. Understandably, many people feel this oversimplifies the symptoms and treatment of depression.
But, recent studies have demonstrated as little as 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise per day (for example, a brisk walk or a run), can help to treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressants. It doesn’t even need to be one block of exercise, you can try breaking it up into two 15 minutes blocks and have the same effect.
But how does exercise have all of these wonderful impacts on our mental health?
There are actually several mechanisms thought to help improve the functionality of our brain. When we exercise, the heart has to beat faster to supply oxygen to our muscles. But it also improves blood flow and oxygen supply to the central nervous system.
Not only does exercise help with nourishment, it also helps the brain flush out waste products and toxins. Neuroscientists believe this help the overall plasticity of the brain, which is another way of saying it helps the neurons of the brain to form new connections.
This is particularly evidenced in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that forms memories. Not only does this help to improve our overall mental and cognitive functions, evidenced suggests it also protects against age-related cognitive decline and memory loss.
Exercise also has another interesting effect on the nervous system. Our sympathetic nervous system, an important system in staying awake and prepared, is activated during the activity. Sympathetic neurons release adrenaline and noradrenaline, two closely related neurotransmitters are associated with wakefulness and attention, but in high levels can result in stress and anxiety.
Following activity, the neurotransmitters remain in the brain, fighting lethargy and exhaustion, and improving mental alertness. Sympathetic neurons are slow to replenish their stores of the neurotransmitters. In simpler terms, this means exercise can help improve alertness, as well as quieten down the sympathetic nervous system, reducing overall stress and anxiety, and aiding in a quality night of sleep.
Exercise can also improve sleep quality by tapping into the circadian rhythm. Body temperature naturally fluctuates during the day, being warmest towards the middle of the day when we are most awake, and cooling at night when it is time to sleep.
Physical activity raises our core body temperature, signaling to the brain it is time to wake up. The temperature remains high for several hours afterwards (a phenomenon known as afterburn), and cools once more about six hours after we return to rest. When the core temperature cools down, it acts as a signal to the brain that it is time to sleep, resulting in feelings of tiredness and relaxation.
The brain is highly active during the afterburn period. It is during this time people are often their most productive. Researchers have found moderate levels of exercise around midday improves the attention span into the afternoon, and can help avoid the 3pm slump most of us experience at work.
Our creativity and ability to think outside the box also peaks in the two hours following a heart-pumping activity session. While midday sessions are tough to schedule in, even a brisk walk could help get the creative juices flowing.
In the hours following exercise, endorphin levels (a portmanteau of endogenous morphine) in the central nervous system rise, in what is commonly called an “endorphin rush”.
Endorphins are a large class of neuropeptides, and work through the opioid receptors in the brain to block pain signals and provide natural pain relief, as well as a feeling of euphoria, peace, and joy.
These endorphins have also been demonstrated to reduce feeling of stress and anxiety, and alleviate symptoms of depression. New research shows the levels of endorphins released is dependent on both the intensity and duration of exercise, with high intensity workouts resulting in a greater endorphin rush.
As well as these endorphins, our reward neurohormone, dopamine, also increases following a session of moderate to intense exercise. Dopamine is particularly important in addiction cycles, and reinforces addictive habits. There is evidence to suggest daily exercise can improve the success rate of people hoping to kick addiction to alcohol, drugs, or cigarettes.
Regular exercise and physical activity also results in improved confidence and self-esteem in most people. Research has found a new sense of self-confidence that comes with regular exercise isn’t related strictly to gender, weight, size, or age, but from an overall improved perception of self-worth and attractiveness.
Although research has found a large number of benefits of exercise when it comes to mental health, it is important to note a single session won’t cut it – we require at least 30 minutes of exercise, at least five days a week to gain from all these benefits. Although most people intend to start an exercise plan, not a lot of people adhere to their own intentions.
Below are some tips for starting an exercise plan that could see you improve your mental health.
- Choose an activity that you enjoy, or have enjoyed in the past
- If possible for you, skip the car, and walk to work. You could even walk part of the way and get public transport for the rest of the way – you’ll get that exercise in and help the environment at the same time!
- Build up your activity slowly – a lot of people try pushing themselves too hard at first, and often give up quickly.
- Download an exercise app on your phone to motivate you – Couch to 5K is a personal favourite
- Find an buddy and motivate each other to fit in your daily exercise.
- Write you exercise plan down in your diary or on a calendar
- Set goals for yourself that you can use to motivate towards increasing the amount and quality of exercise you do in your day.