The Science of Exercise – How Physical Activity Impacts Mental Health

People tend to be aware of its physical advantages – for the heart, muscles, lungs, and bones – but just as important are its mental health benefits, such as the ways in which regular physical activity can help relieve depression, boost self-esteem, and promote an improved mood, in addition to better sleeping patterns.

Medication and psychotherapy are two of the most common treatments of mental illness, but now physical exercise has been proven to be an excellent adjunct treatment.

It Improves Memory and Cognition

We all know that exercise helps us keep our muscles strong, maintain a healthy weight, and potentially even prevent chronic diseases. But did you also know that physical exercise can be good for your brain, especially your memory and cognition?

Research has found that regular exercisers have bigger hippocampi, a key brain area involved in learning, memory-consolidation, navigation and emotional behaviour, while depression causes shrinkage in this part of the brain.

Scientists are only just beginning to figure out how exercise can boost mental health. It turns out to have little to do with cardiovascular fitness or hypertrophy of skeletal muscle – though they might matter in other ways, for overall wellbeing. Instead, it seems to be about involving the mind, and offering the reward of immediate progress.

Fortunately, high-intensity exercise does appear to temporarily damage working memory, but once you have recovered properly, it also helps with cognitively simple tasks. This indicates that higher- and lower-intensity exercising produce different effects in the brain; more research is needed into exactly how to exercise optimally to improve cognition.

It Reduces Stress

Perhaps no single part of our existence has remained unchanged more than stress. Although it is an inescapable part of life, high levels of stress can be life-threatening, especially when it comes to our physical states. When we are under too much stress for too long, it can lead anxiety, aggravated digestive problems, impaired immunity systems, and depression. a few years ago, a friend of ours, who was probably going through stress for the first time in his life, decided on a whim to start spending frequent hours at the gym.

Exercise triggers the release of endorphins, natural painkillers, and resets your body, putting you in an instant, natural good mood. Working out regularly can help you deal with stressors as they arise during the day, or to handle the stressors more readily.

In addition, fitter people have larger hippocampal volumes, a critical area of the brain involved in memory, learning, navigation and emotional behaviour. It’s been hypothesised that the inflammation caused by prolonged depression might shrink volumes in this section of the brain.

In many ways, exercise may be the best and most straightforward way of managing its effects: exercisers routinely report that they are better able to cope with stress and anxiety, and, according to a poll on the ADAA website, 14 per cent reported using exercise as one of their main coping mechanisms.

It Increases Self-Esteem

This is the simplest explanation for how exercise improves self-esteem: enhanced body image or heightened self-confidence that derives from eating more healthily and exercising regularly. Feeling that a workout has gone well might then generate a sense of achievement as well, as one sees tangible gains in fitness.

However, keep in mind that any changes in self-esteem associated with exercise are due to both activities – not one causing the other. The sociometer theory argues that self-esteem is a social instinct that leads to intrapsychic processes.

Exercise, though, can mean anything from running laps at the gym to walking to any physical activity you see fit. Any of these will boost your mood. As always, before beginning any new physical activity programme or regime, it is better to consult with your physician first – if you are suffering from mental-health conditions such as depression or anxiety disorders, exercise is especially important to reduce the health risks associated with these conditions.

It Improves Sleep

Not only does exercise reduce daytime stress and anxiety, making it a mood-boosting ritual; it also helped people to fall asleep faster at night and be less likely to have a night-time awakening, and it is thought to be a potentially effective treatment for people who live with insomnia or obstructive sleep apnea, a common sleep disorder that causes disturbed sleep.

You might engage in physical exercise resulting in your body dispersing neurohormones such as norepinephrine (a neurohormone associated with alertness) and melatonin (a neurohormone known for its sleep-inducing properties), which can both help to improve your mental performance through alleviating the psychological stress it entails. In addition to the alleviating psychological stress example, regular physical exercise can also enhance your cognitive abilities by reducing its toll on you.

The scientists discovered that, for areas of the brain commonly affected by mental illnesses ranging from depression to schizophrenia, exercise led to the expansion of individual neurons, overall brain volume and the number of synapses, the connections between neurons. The anti-inflammatory effect begins during the exercise session, and continues to be effective for several hours afterwards.

Beware exercising in the evening: strenuous exercise is likely to interfere with a good night’s sleep and make it harder to drift off. Instead, do your exercise as early as you can, and at least three hours before bed.


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