World Mental Health Day: How Exercise Benefits Mental Health
Saturday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day, founded to raise awareness of the need for mental health education. But mental and physical health are not separate; each supports and affects the other. One of the most valuable things you can do for your mental health is exercise! Exercise can reduce depression and anxiety while improving mood, focus, and overall well-being. Read on to learn how!
How Exercise Improves Mental Health
Exercise improves and normalizes levels of neurotransmitters, chemical substances that carry impulses from nerve cells across the synapse to other cells. There are numerous unique neurotransmitters and they're essential for the proper functioning of our neural system. Exercise can help increase levels of these neurotransmitters, all important for mental health:
- Dopamine: a chemical messenger crucial for many neural functions, including reward, motivation, memory, attention, and regulating movement, as well as many bodily functions. It's released when your brain expects a pleasurable activity as a reward, and is important in motivation and behavior patterns.
- Norepinephrine: this mobilizes the brain and body, and acts as an important component of the sleep-wake cycle, alertness, the fight-or-flight response to stressful situations, and heart rate. In stressful situations it raises the blood pressure and blood sugar levels, as well as helps to break down fat, all to provide energy for the body to act.
- Serotonin: this is a mood stabilizer that can regulate anxiety and happiness levels, and is involved in normalizing the sleep-wake cycle. It's also crucial for digestion, helping to control bowel function and even causing feelings of nausea while signalling the body to eliminate upsetting food.
Low levels of any of these chemicals are linked to depression, anxiety, poor sleep, reduced focus, and numerous other mental and emotional health issues.
You may be wondering, how does exercise increase levels of these neurotransmitters? Physical activity stimulates the release of all of these chemicals. When exercise increases your heart rate, your bloodstream delivers more oxygen and nutrients throughout the body, including to the brain.
Exercise also increases neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signaling, growth, and connections; exercise directly affects and improves brain activity. Evidence has also been accruing that exercise may stimulate neurogenesis, the creation of neurons in the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain involved in memory, learning, and emotion regulation. Current research indicates that many mental health conditions are associated with reduced neurogenesis, particularly depression.
Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
What are the practical improvements you might see with increased exercise?
- Stress relief.
- Improved mood.
- Reduced tiredness and fatigue.
- Increased mental alertness.
- Increased energy and stamina.
- Better endurance.
- Increased interest in sex.
- Weight reduction.
- Reduced cholesterol.
- Improved cardiovascular fitness.
Mental and physical health are not as distinct as we tend to view them. Each affects the other directly, and can support each other when maintained: increased exercise leads to improved energy, focus, mood, and motivation, which then encourages you to stay active!
The American Heart Association recommends you get at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes per week of vigorous aerobic activity (or a combination of both), preferably spread throughout the week. By sticking to this robust schedule, you'll see improvements in both physical and mental health.