The Impact of Exercise on Mental Health
It’s common knowledge that regular exercise is crucial for leading a healthy life. From weight management to strengthening our bones and muscles, exercise can drastically impact our physical health. However, we often ignore the psychological benefits of regular exercise. Several studies have proven that working out has a deep connection with our mental health. It can even aid in coping with mental illness and improve our overall emotional well-being.
Today’s mental health professionals are increasingly recommending exercise as a vital part of their treatment for stress and illnesses such as depression, and anxiety.
Let us explore why exercise is beneficial for our brain and how it improves our overall mental health.
The connection between exercise and the brain
The brain is also an organ that is positively impacted by physical exertion along with the rest of the body and internal organs. Below are some ways in which working out affects the brain in particular, which in turn impact our mental health.
Regulation of chemicals and hormones
Every time we exercise, our brain releases chemicals such as dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These two hormones are called the ‘happy hormones’ and are responsible for lifting our mood.
People who stay physically active tend to be less stressed and happier in life. Regular exercise can help us regulate our mood and lead a contented life.
It can also help regulate stress hormones such as cortisol and other hormones such as estrogen and testosterone. When the heart rate increases for at least half an hour every day, it helps in the regulation of any hormones that aren’t functioning normally or optimally in the body.
Studies have proven how hormonal imbalance and deficiencies can impact mental health. Hence, the restoration of hormonal health through physical exercise, has a direct relation with our mental health.
Oxygenation of the brain
When we work out, the heart pumps more blood to the brain and exposes the brain to more nutrients and oxygen. While the lack of oxygen supply in the brain can damage the brain cells, and even cause brain hypoxia or brain death, having adequate nutrients and oxygen in our brain is vital for healthy brain functioning.
Exercise is capable of nourishing the brain cells (neurons) by releasing proteins in the brain.
These proteins enhance the growth of brain cells and keep them healthy. Hence, in order to improve our overall mental well being, it’s crucial to improve the health of our neurons.
Improvement of cognitive functions
Several studies have shown that being physically active can also promote good memory and increased cognitive flexibility. High-intensity workout also improves the speed of information processing.
Children who are physically active or play regularly tend to have better mental abilities compared to those who are more sedentary.
How does working out impact our mental health?
It can impact our overall mood: As mentioned, regular physical activity increases the release of happy hormones and acts as a natural mood booster. It also helps to prevent mental illness by reducing stress.
Working out promotes body confidence and self-esteem: People often feel dejected because of their body weight. However, exercise can help to lose weight and maintain a good body posture which also helps with confidence.
Can positively impact our social life: When we join an exercise class or gym for regular training, we meet like-minded people. Exercising with like-minded people makes us more social, which reduces stress and enhances confidence.
Different types of exercise
There are different forms of exercise that can improve our overall mental and physical well-being. From walking to lifting weights, one can choose a physical activity based on one’s preference.
Although this list is not exhaustive, we’ve mentioned some primary exercise types below.
Aerobic exercises (running, cycling, swimming)
Aerobic exercises such as running, cycling, and swimming are extremely popular exercise options and can promote improved mental health. Just a single session or five to ten minutes of aerobic workout can lift our mood and reduce stress.
However, long-term practice (of around 10-15 weeks) of running, cycling, or swimming, has been shown to impact psychological health dramatically.
In the beginning, a high-intensity workout can increase the cortisol and adrenaline levels in the body, which causes a sudden hike in stress. With regular practice however, the body adapts to it, becomes resilient, and helps us cope with stress in daily life.
According to one study, high-intensity exercise can prevent and treat depression. Another study suggests that high-intensity workouts boosts a protein called Brain-derived neurotrophic factor or BDNF. (BDNF is responsible for cognitive function, cell repair, and mood regulation. Low levels of BDNF are associated with bipolar disorder, depression, and schizophrenia.)
Yoga is of course known to be hugely beneficial for relieving stress and improving mental health. Usually, yoga involves various postures, controlled breathing, and meditation.
Practising different forms of yoga calms the mind. And performing it regularly increases the release of happy hormones such as dopamine and endorphins in the body. Yoga helps to heal both the body and mind by incorporating mindfulness and the focus on breathing into physical exercise.
As per a 2018 study, yoga lowers blood pressure and heart rate, and improves respiration. It can also reduce the symptoms of stress and anxiety.
A brief guide on how to start with a work-out plan
For a beginner, starting with a new exercise regimen can be tricky. Before beginning, it’s useful to know what type of exercise one prefers: is it a jog in the morning, lifting weights, or doing yoga?
One should choose an exercise program that one enjoys and that is suited to one’s personality.
Here are a few pointers for starting an effective exercise regimen.
- Don’t overdo it: Try not to push yourself too much, especially in the beginning. An extreme workout when one is starting out can do more harm than good and can even cause physical injury. Exercise can help us only if we do it consistently. And the only way we can be consistent is if we can make it fun. So it is advisable to gradually increase the intensity or duration of the exercise routine over time.
- Set goals: One can’t get visible results overnight. That’s why it’s crucial to set realistic and smaller goals to stay motivated.
- Be consistent: 30 minutes of exercise, four times a week is better than 2 hours of workout four times a month. When it comes to building a habit, consistency is key. So, one should make a long-term commitment to one’s exercise plan to get good results.
- Experiment: When an individual starts a new exercise plan for the long-term, it’s natural to lose motivation at different phases of the plan. The initial motivation tends to fade over time. In such a situation, experimenting and trying newer routines is helpful. For example, if someone gets bored while working out in the gym, they can opt for walking or jogging.
Being physically active not only benefits our body, but also improves our mind. However, exercise should also be fun and not something undertaken grudgingly or forcefully.
It’s also important to seek feedback from oneself if one is not motivated. For example, if someone finds it hard to work out in the morning, they can try it out in the afternoon. One should keep exploring and experimenting with their work out plan to make things interesting.
Being aware that exercise will not only benefit the body, but also the mind should be a great motivator for those who wish to improve their mental abilities. In addition, because exercise is such a wonderful tool to increase mindfulness and reduce stress and anxiety, it is something that can enhance the overall quality of one’s life.
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Disclaimer: The content provided here is for informational and educational purposes only. Lokyatha has observed best effort due diligence and all health related content is reviewed by a trained professional before publishing. However, this should not and can not replace personalized medical help. Please refer to a professional in all cases of need.