Can exercise help with mental health?
The link between mental and physical health is indisputable by current scientific standards. We know that what you eat and drink has a huge effect not just on your physical body, but also on its chemical makeup. We also know that physical ailments can affect our mood and lead to issues such as depression. This is brought on by a combination of suffering and the limitations placed on us by the problem. So the question is, if deteriorating physical health can have such an impact on our mental health, is the reverse also true?
In short, the answer is yes. Countless studies have proven this to be true both as a method of maintaining or improving general mental health, and in combating specific conditions. As there are so many variables in exercise, mental health, physical health, and neurological processes, this blog aims to explain the impact of exercise in simple terms.
Exercise causes the release of endorphins into our body. These are the chemicals that make us feel happy, so logic dictates that more exercise will equate to more happiness. This has been shown in many scientific studies, such as a Harvard study that found exercise offered more long-term benefits than anti-depressants. This study found that walking just 35 minutes a day, five times a week (or 60 minutes, three times) can significantly reduce depression.
As well as endorphins, exercise also causes the body to release norepinephrine, which is the active agent in regulating our response to stress. While exercising may not seem like the most efficient use of your time when you are stressed about something, you will be more effective and successful at dealing with the issue if you exercise. Failure to do so means that rather than dealing with your existing stress, you are simply adding to it.
Although exercise doesn’t necessarily have to be outside, it can be a more effective way to work out. Firstly, the Vitamin D we get from the sun makes us less likely to experience symptoms of depression. But perhaps more important are the psychological effects of being outside. More time spent in the sun helps our bodies to know what time of day it is, which can affect our frame of mind, and even our sleeping patterns. Furthermore, the natural beauty and serenity of the outdoors has a calming effect on the mind, and helps alleviate worries.
Exercise causes a lot of different chemicals to be released, and these can affect us in many different ways. One of the most fundamental ways we are affected is by the actual “quality” of our brain. Exercise when we are young helps our brain stay agile, and absorb as much new information as possible. By our mid-twenties, when we have fully matured, exercising becomes a way to build up immunity against potential future issues, such as Alzheimer’s. Exercise from young adulthood onwards helps keep crucial areas of the brain like the Hippocampus, responsible for memory, as intact as possible. Fledgling studies in mice have also yielded promising results for neurogenesis, the regeneration of brain cells. However, neurogenesis in humans is not yet possible, meaning we need to maintain the cells we have.
Insomnia can be brought on in different people in different ways. Identifying the root cause can be difficult, and addressing it even more so. While the effectiveness of exercise on insomnia will vary on a case-by-case basis, some patients have found that working out roughly 5 or 6 hours ahead of bedtime to help. This is not only because the exercise tires them out, but also because it raises the core temperature of the body. Much like how our body knows when to sleep based on the sun, it takes the cooling down of the core as a signal that it’s time to go to bed.
There are many more ways that exercise benefits mental health than we could possibly include here. Of course exercise can’t be used to address all mental health issues, but it can be used to help along the healing process for many of them. Even if you are suffering from a mental illness that does not appear to directly benefit from exercise, working out can still help you improve in other areas, and prevent your situation from deteriorating.