How Exercise Improves Your Mental Health

on June 10, 2021 • Grace

For most of us, moving our bodies is associated with improving our physical health — building muscle, narrowing our waistlines or improving cardiovascular health. What we may be overlooking, however, is the several ways working out can improve our mental health, from anxiety to memory retention. 

In fact, when you exercise, you are not only working toward a rocking bod, but you are also working toward a happier life overall. That’s because moving your body directly affects your brain functioning in positive ways. 

If you need a little extra motivation to hit the gym this week, check out these four ways exercise can improve your brain, and how to start getting those effects now:

Reduces Stress and Anxiety

When you exercise, you may be putting your body under pressure, but you’re putting your mind at ease. In fact, exercise and sport psychology expert, Dr. Jennifer Carter, says, “I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious.”

Not only does breaking a sweat take your mind off of any current worries or negative self-talk, but it also tricks your brain into feeling more relaxed and care-free. That’s because exercise increases your norepinephrine, a chemical that moderates your brain’s response to stress and helps you better deal with the pressure. It also loosens up your body, relieving the uncomfortable physical symptoms of stress such as tight muscles. 

What’s more, aerobic exercise, specifically, is known to reduce anxiety sensitivity. When you do a moderate to high intensity workout, your brain releases feel-good endorphins that help you calm down — especially if you have an anxiety disorder. 

Boosts Mood

Not only does exercise keep your brain calm, but it also has the power to make your brain happier, as well. This again traces back to the release of endorphins such as serotonin and dopamine, which produce feelings of happiness and euphoria in addition to tranquility. 

This effect is more commonly known as a “runner’s high.” As psychology professor, Dr. Michael Otto, says, “The link between exercise and mood is pretty strong. Usually within five minutes after moderate exercise you get a mood-enhancement effect.”

However, exercise also has an effect on long-term depression. It has been shown to actually relieve symptoms of clinical depression — just as well as antidepressant medication, as one study showed. Additionally, people who ran for 15 minutes a day, or walked for an hour a day, saw a 26% decrease in their risk for major depression. 

Sharpens Memory

In addition to helping your brain feel calmer and happier, exercise can also improve your overall brain functioning — especially when it comes to your memory. 

When you hit the gym, you are increasing your body’s production of cells in the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that is responsible for memory and learning. This affects how you store new memories, preserve old memories and process new information. And the more you exercise, the more your hippocampus grows. 

In fact, one study linked a child’s brain development with their level of physical fitness. But this effect doesn’t just apply to kids. Another study found that running sprints improves vocabulary retention among healthy adults. 

Even better: Boosting production in your hippocampus will help you prevent cognitive decline as you age. As you age, important brain cells start to die out. If you’re consistently growing new cells by exercising, however, you can counteract this shrinkage, even to the point of delaying the onset of dementia

Increases Energy and Focus

So you’ve started working out and you’re calmer, happier and have a better memory. Could it get any better than that?

Well, according to science, it can indeed. Studies have shown that working out increases levels of a brain-derived protein, known as BDNF, in the body. This protein helps you with decision-making and higher-level thinking. One study found that school children who took part in after-school sports over a school year became better at ignoring distractions, multitasking and processing information in their minds. 

Mix this with an increased flow of blood and oxygen to your brain, and the result is more productivity and better focus — as well as a boost in creativity. According to another study, simply walking improved divergent thinking, which is the idea-generating aspect of creative thought. 

So How Can You Achieve These Mental Health Benefits Today?

Luckily for you, your brain doesn’t need an incredibly rigorous workout routine to start reaping rewards. 

According to one study, exercising for a little as twenty minutes helps improve your memory functions. Increase that to 45 to 60 minutes for three or more days a week, and you’ll see a decrease in chronic depression. 

When it comes to what type of exercise is best, try to opt for something aerobic, such as running or cycling. However, positive cognitive effects have also been linked to low-intensity mind-body exercises, such as yoga and tai chi. 

And when in doubt, just think: Anything that is good for your heart and body will also be good for your brain. 

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