How Exercise Can Help Relieve Stress
Move More Month spotlights the benefits of exercise on a healthy lifestyle, but those benefits are not limited to strong joints or a healthy heart. Regular workouts can also improve your mental health! Exercise can reduce depression and anxiety while improving mood, focus, and overall well-being. Read on to learn how!
What are the Mental Health Benefits of Exercise?
The benefits of exercise extend beyond physical health into mental well-being, as the connections between these two aspects of health are diverse and often reciprocal:
- Reduced Stress: Endorphins, chemicals found in the pituitary gland and central nervous system, are produced to relieve pain and stress, sometimes creating the sense of euphoria known as a "runner's high." Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, which reduces feelings of stress as well as physical pain.
- Improved Mood: Exercise increases circulation, which delivers more oxygen throughout your body. Low levels of oxygen in the bloodstream have been linked to depression, while increased oxygen to the brain improves cognitive function. In addition, exercise has been shown to increase self-confidence through improved body image and sense of accomplishment.
- Clearer Focus: Loss of focus and drive are common depressive symptoms. The set of physical tasks required by exercise helps you achieve focus as you strive to improve performance, and this can help you forget stressful elements in your life while your deep concentration can impart a sense of calm. Mindfulness exercises like yoga and Tai Chi are particularly valuable for this, but any exercise can help you reach this kind of clarity and improve your motivation.
- Improved Health: Many health problems are linked to depressive symptoms for a variety of reasons such as reduced self-image, mobility issues that limit independence or socialization, chemical and hormonal changes, or anxiety about your health condition. These include obesity, diabetes, osteoporosis, and heart disease. Others, such as high blood pressure, are exacerbated by stress. But these health problems can be mitigated or prevented by regular physical activity.
- Improved Sleep: Regular exercise has been shown to improve sleep patterns and quality, as well as improve the condition of patients with sleep-disordered breathing such as sleep apnea. Not only does improved sleep also improve mood, but poor quality sleep can lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and depression.
How Does Exercise Improve 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. Physical activity stimulates the release of these chemicals, and the increased circulation created by exercise 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.
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.