The link between exercise and mental health

When you’re having a down day, sometimes that’s all it is. But it isn’t uncommon for that one down day to extend to a week, or a month, or even a year, until it feels never-ending. Whether or not you’ve been diagnosed with depression or other mental health issues, exercise is likely to do you some good.

Although it could be the last thing on your mind when you’re wracked with anxiety or depression, exercise can not only benefit you physically but mentally as well. Studies have shown that the psychological effects of physical activity are not to be ignored. 

Exercise releases endorphins and other brain chemicals

Exercise is especially helpful for people suffering from depression and anxiety. Depression is a common mood disorder that negatively affects people’s daily lives, causing them to feel deep sadness or apathy. Anxiety, on the other hand, is defined by feelings of tension. When these feelings are constantly felt at high levels, it could be diagnosed as a medical disorder. Anxiety can be caused by environmental factors, but it can also be caused by genetics, medical issues, and brain chemistry.

Exercise is known as a mood-booster because physical activity triggers the brain’s release of endorphins, the feel-good chemical that isn’t too different from cannabis. When you exercise, you could experience “runner’s high,” the rush of endorphins after physical activity. These neurotransmitters can enhance your sense of well-being by reducing pain, relieving stress, and causing you to feel happier. The promise of endorphins during exercise causes many doctors to recommend that their patients try exercising before turning to pills. 

However, endorphins aren’t the only neurotransmitters you should thank for the boost in your mood. Exercise triggers the release of serotonin, which can improve your sleep cycle and increase your appetite. Physical activity also allows for an increase in dopamine, the neurotransmitter that affects how we feel pleasure. Stress hormones such as norepinephrine and adrenaline could likewise be released in response to regular exercise, contributing to one’s fight-or-flight response. This can help you keep your focus.

Exercise can distract you

It can be quite difficult to pay attention to something other than one’s negative thoughts when battling mental health issues. While exercising, the physical activity can help you keep focused on your movements rather than your worries. Negative thoughts only feed the depression and anxiety you may be experiencing.

Before you exercise, make a list of goals you want to reach in the gym. Would you like to be able to do ten push-ups non-stop by the end of the month? Are you aiming for a beach-ready body by the summer? Having your goals in mind while working out will help you concentrate on improving your body and how you feel in it. Crossing your goals off your list once you’ve accomplished them will no doubt make you feel more confident and in control of your life. Being fit could also increase your self-esteem, especially when you see yourself in the mirror!

Exercise can get you out there

Of course, you could always choose to work out on a yoga mat in your living room or with your earphones on in the gym, but even taking a daily run outside or an exercise class could give you the chance to interact with others. Greet joggers that run into you at the same time every day, thank people who help you with your weights at the gym, or make friends with the people you do pilates with every week.

It’s tempting to drown oneself in alcohol and binge-watch TV shows on bad days. Exercising is a healthy, positive activity that can feel easier to do when you surround yourself with others who do it, too. Allow the people you see and meet to motivate and inspire you to keep exercising.

Exercise can help you sleep

Mental health issues often get in the way of the body’s sleep cycle. When serotonin is released as a result of physical activity, the serotonin can build up in certain areas of the brain, triggering sleep. Low serotonin levels contribute to less non-REM (rapid eye movement) sleep. Non-REM sleep allows the body to build muscle, strengthen the immune system, build bone, and repair tissue. Your body also needs serotonin to synthesize the hormone melatonin, which plays an important role in the body’s sleep-wake cycle. Exercise is also used as a way to regulate the body’s circadian rhythm, which can make you feel more sleepy or awake.

Exercise can boost brainpower

Be prepared to improve more than your mood when you hit the gym. According to Walden University, exercise has been found to not only strengthen memory but build intelligence. When humans and mice did cardiovascular exercise, scientists discovered that their brains participated in neurogenesis, the production of new brain cells. This process improved the subjects’ brain performance by strengthening the hippocampus, a complex structure in the brain’s temporal lobe, is in charge of memory and learning. The researchers concluded that physical activity prevents memory loss and cognitive decline.

This is one reason the elderly are advised to exercise. More and more people are experiencing dementia, defined by the Mental Health Foundation as a decline in mental ability affecting thinking, concentration, problem-solving, and memory. It occurs due to the death or damage of brain cells, leading to diseases such as Alzheimer’s. Even people who have not been diagnosed with dementia experience problems with concentration due to their old age. Adults who exercise daily have a 20-30% lower risk of depression and dementia, proving that physical activity plays a role in the reduction of likelihood of cognitive decline.

Taking the first step

Exercise is by no means an overnight cure for what you’re feeling, but it can definitely help you over time. Psychology Today magazine recommends exercising three or more times a week for 45-60 minutes each time to help in the treatment of even chronic depression. This type of routine can reportedly show positive results after four weeks. However, the Mayo Clinic states that even regular walking could improve mood. 

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