We hear professionals encouraging us to exercise for our physical health, and occasionally they may encourage us to exercise for our mental health, but why? How does something physical impact us mentally?
For me personally, exercise is my outlet when I am feeling stressed, anxious, or low. Before starting a workout and sometimes during, I often feel unmotivated, exhausted and flat. I can’t be bothered, it seems like a lot of effort, and I regret my decision to sign up for the class, especially if it’s cold outside. However, when I finish exercising I feel great. I have lots of energy and I feel good about my accomplishments, even if I am sweaty and my muscles are hurting. So, why does exercise impact our mood and decrease stress and anxiety?
Well firstly, when we exercise, our brain releases endorphins – the feel-good chemicals. This promotes a reduction in cortisol levels, our stress hormone, and makes us feel more relaxed. Furthermore, dopamine and serotonin production in our brain increases. These chemicals are linked to happiness and are often associated with antidepressant medications. So you can think of a workout as a feel-good ‘cocktail’ without the alcohol.
In the short-term, exercise can promote an influx of ‘feel-good’ chemicals, but in the long term, these chemicals can impact our brain structure. Long-term, consistent exercise can promote blood flow, feel good chemicals, as well as increase the volume of our frontal lobe, which helps us with decision making, concentration, attention and rationalizing, as well as the temporal lobe and hippocampus which is where we store and process long term memory. These areas of our brain are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as cognitive decline with aging.
Enough about the brain stuff, let’s talk more about how we feel after exercising. I don’t know about you, but when I go to the gym I am proud of my achievements. And the more I work out, the better I feel about myself. We know that exercise has this effect, and can subsequently improve our self-esteem and self-worth. Not only are we feeling better about ourselves, but we are also often so busy exercising we may have forgotten or at least reduced the rate at which our thoughts were racing with anxious, negative thoughts. This respite is enough to give our mind and our body a break, and we have actually moved blood through our muscles where tension from our stressors may have built up, thus reducing physical pain, tension, and discomfort.
So, now you know that exercise can promote not only better physical health but also mental health, you are probably asking yourself what exactly do I have to do and how often? Research to date suggests any form of exercise is better than nothing. But to feel the full effects on our mental health, we should be completing any exercise that increases our heart rate and promotes blood flow throughout our entire body, such as aerobic exercise. The optimal time spent exercising is between 30 to 60 minutes 4 times per week. We need to do this consistently to achieve those longer-term benefits. Surprisingly, research has found that people who exercised more than 3 hours per day had a decrease in their mental health, compared to people who exercised for 30 to 60 minutes per day. Goes to show that exercise doesn’t need to consume your life to reap the benefits.
So, what now? If you are still unsure, talk to your GP, local gym or trainer. Find what works for you. Identify an exercise that you enjoy and make it part of your lifestyle. Then you should start to see both physical and mental health benefits.