We all hear that exercise is beneficial and that it is good for you, but what does this all mean?
The impact physical exercise has on our body is quite common knowledge. We know that it gives us more energy, keeps us healthy and even helps with our physique. But you may not be aware of the effects exercise can have on our brain and mental wellbeing.
“Exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do to your brain today,” says neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki.
There are many ways exercise positively influences our mental health. Often, people exercise because it makes them feel good. After exercising, you may tend to feel more energetic, relaxed and positive, which can lead to better sleeping patterns and sharper memory. It can even help with your overall outlook on life. This all has to do with how certain parts of our brain is affected when we exercise.
As we exercise, our heart rate begins to increase, pumping oxygen to the brain. The release of hormones when we exercise also promotes the production and growth of brain cells. Exercise stimulates chemicals in our brain that can improve our mood, memory and learning abilities. When you exercise you boost the production of endorphins that help you relax, feel more pleasure, feel less pain and reduce stress hormones.
It also has the ability to protect your brain from different conditions such as depression, dementia or alzheimers. Jennifer Carter, counselling and sports psychologist, says “I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed”.
A study of 1.2 million people found that those who exercised, reported having 1.5 less days of poor mental health per month, when compared to those who neglect to train their bodies. The study included all types of physical activity, however the strongest associations with improved mental health were team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise.
Why does it have such a positive effect?
1. It has an immediate effect on the brain
By completing a single workout, your neurotransmitter levels (like dopamine, serotonin and adrenaline) increase, immediately putting you into a better mood. In fact, exercising is thought to be just as effective in treating mild to moderate cases of depression as antidepressant treatments.
2. Exercise changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology and attention function.
By exercising, blood is pumped to your brain to produce brand new cells in the hippocampus (which is associated with memory and learning). As this part of the brain increases in volume, your memory improves and you start to think more clearly. According to Wendy, “The most common finding in neuroscience studies when looking at effects of long-term exercise is improved attention function dependent on your prefrontal cortex”. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for our focus and attention.
3. It protects your brain in the long term
Think of your brain as any other muscle of your body. If you keep working out, it increases the volume of your hippocampus and your prefrontal cortex. Both are parts of your brain that are the most vulnerable to neurodegenerative diseases and cognitive aging. In saying this, it doesn’t mean by exercising you can avoid these diseases completely. But by strengthening these parts of your brain, it could take longer for these diseases to have an effect.
Benefits of physical exercise on your mental health:
- Reduces stress
- Increases happiness levels and lowers levels of sadness and loneliness
- Prevents depression and anxiety disorders
- Gives you more energy
- Improves overall quality of life
- Better sleep quality
- Increases self-esteem and promotes self-accomplishment
- Better brain function
- Sharper memory and thinking
- Reduces skeletal muscle tension, making you feel more relaxed
How much exercise should you get to reap the benefits?
Exercise is something easy you could do right now and receive an immediate positive benefit on your brain. The good news is that you don’t have to be a star athlete or gym fanatic to get the amazing benefits of exercise.
Australian guidelines recommend doing at least 30 minutes of physical exercise, 3 to 5 days a week to improve your mental health significantly. However, even modest amounts of exercise is still enough to gain the benefits and see a difference. Remember that any exercise is better than no exercise!
Now that you have learnt how physical exercise benefits our mental health, learn how exercise can help boost your immunity here.