Almost everybody knows exercise is an awesome way of keeping a healthy figure and improving one’s overall health. Some benefits include: increasing metabolism, strength, and energy, while decreasing chances of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, diabetes and many other health related issues. Yes, going to the gym or making time to stay active can be difficult, but trust me you will look great and more importantly FEEL great. I know that for me, going to the gym is a way to relieve stress and reduce anxiety, which is another plus to breaking a sweat. We are given a lot of information about physical activity and how it is related to general health, but a lot of people haven’t gotten the memo about all the perks exercise gives us mentally.
Studies have found that exercise has a significant effect on improving depression and anxiety related symptoms, and our overall mood. Americans, for the most part, are extremely stressed out. A lot of us have very demanding, fast paced work schedules and don’t have time to take care of ourselves and handle our personal lives. That may account for the 19 million adults that are diagnosed with depression each year in this country, and an astounding 40 million diagnosed with anxiety disorders. For some that have chronic debilitating symptoms, medication is a start to get back on the right track, but medication is not totally necessary for all individuals suffering from anxiety or depression related symptoms.
What Mental Perks?
At this point you might be asking yourself, ‘what kind of mental perks can exercise give me and why?’ Well let me explain; Exercise is the best medication for a healthy body and mind. When we exercise, we are releasing all kinds of chemicals in our brain that have serious mood-boosting effects. The largest effects of exercise on anxiety reduction are shown when:
- the exercise is “aerobic” (e.g., running, swimming, cycling) as opposed to nonaerobic (e.g., handball, strength-flexibility training)
- the length of the aerobic training is carried out for at least 10 weeks
- it shows larger effects with individuals who have initially lower levels of fitness and/or higher levels of anxiety. Larger effects for individuals who suffer from depression are shown when: (a) the exercise training program is longer than 9 weeks and involve more sessions per week
- the exercise session is longer in duration and higher in intensity
- effects are more significant with individuals who are lower in their initial level of fitness and/or express higher levels of depression
Let’s Get Movin’ People!
Patients diagnosed with anxiety and depression found improvements in symptoms and were significantly less depressed after spending 20 mintues to 1 hour exercising anywhere from 3 to 5 days a week. Patients have reported that after completing their first workout session, they already feel improvements. That alone is amazing! A 1999 study published in the “Archives of Internal Medicine”, conducted by James A. Blumenthal and Michael A. Babyak, found that those who exercised at a moderate intensity of 40 minutes, 3 to 5 days per week, experienced the greatest mood-boosting benefits. In another study, a team of Australian researchers compared people who did 30 minutes of aerobic exercise 3 times a week with a group who practiced progressive-relaxation techniques. They found that it was the exercise group that had lower blood pressure and responded best to acute stress.
Our “Happy” Chemicals
What are these “happy” chemicals released in the brain to cause this mood differentiation? Endorphins are one of these chemicals that have a strong effect. During a substantial workout this chemical is released by the pituitary gland in the brain and relieves stress and pain naturally. The effects include decreased stress, euphoric feelings often referred to as a post-exercise high, decreased appetite and an improved immune response. The release of endorphins has an addictive effect and more exercise is needed to acquire the same level of euphoria over time. In fact, endorphins attach to the same neuron receptor as morphine and heroin, but it does not have the same addicting effects that the latter opiates have.
Serotonin is another neurochemical released during exercise, and like its friend the endorphin, it also acts as a natural mood enhancer. It contributes to feelings of happiness and well-being, regulation in mood, appetite, sleep, memory, and learning. When levels of serotonin are increased, symptoms of depression can be decreased. Simon N. Young, editor in chief of the “Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience,” reports that people with lower levels of serotonin may experience feelings of depression.
Brain-derived neurotrophic factor, known as BDNF, is a neurotransmitter also found to be released into the brain in response to exercise. This chemical has been shown to help reduce the symptoms of depression and enhance brain health and memory. BDNFs generate new neurons, but also protect existing neurons and promote synaptic plasticity (the efficiency of signal transmission between neurons, which form the basis of learning and memory). However, BDNFs do not just protect, they repair as well. This reparative effect is relevant to us because the brain starts to lose nerve tissue beginning at age 30. Thanks to aerobic exercise neural connections are reinforced by increasing the number of dendrite connections between neurons, therefore helping us to better process and store information.
Why is it important?
It’s important for us to know that the release of these chemicals into the brain are different for individuals who exercise at the same intensity; But regardless of the differentiating release rate of chemicals, aerobic exercise performed consistently and comfortably, is linked to an increase of helpful chemical releases. Isn’t it beautiful what our body can do for us? Even people who are unable to exercise with full intensity can reap the benefits.
Our daily chores like gardening, mowing the lawn, washing the car, taking a nice walk, biking, or anything to get the blood flowing can benefit us. Exercise is such a positive form of therapy because it provides multiple beneficial effects which include: higher self-esteem and confidence, higher satisfaction in body image, restful sleep, more social interactions, it improves mental alertness, it serves as a healthy and constructive way to cope with stress, it has been shown to help improve sex life due to an increase in confidence levels, it serves to decrease obesity, and it keeps your wallet a little heavier because you aren’t spending like you would on more traditional forms of therapy. So lace up those tennies, get out there and take advantage of the healing gifts your body gives you naturally through exercise!
- Exercise Counteracts Anxiety and Depression, from Harvard Men’s Health Watch (prweb.com)
- Try This Advice For Dealing With Depression (sympathygiftsformen.wordpress.com)
- Aerobic Exercise or Weight Training to Boost Brain Function? (sharpbrains.com)
- Exercise as a Mood-Lifter (everydayhealth.com)
- 5 Hacks to Sticking to Exercise Through Depression (bodyhack.com)
- Get up! Get out! Start moving! Not only will you feel better, your brain will work better too! (warmsouthernbreeze.wordpress.com)
- Fun and Anxiety (jaybirdtakesflight.com)
- The Effects of Exercise on Serotonin Levels (dfitnesscr.wordpress.com)