What are the mental health benefits of exercise?

Jason Brien.

Global depression and anxiety have been on the up and up for a long time. We live in a hyper competitive, hyper comparative world and people are more stressed than ever. Consistent and regular sleep can be hard to come by at the best of times. All of these factors combined can significantly impact upon our mental health. Exercise is commonly recommended to people who are suffering from stress, sleeping problems and mental health issues. When most people think of exercise they think of walking, running, playing sports or otherwise being energetic and athletic. Researchers and scientists have explored both the physical and mental health benefits of exercise for quite some time. How effective is exercise in reducing or managing mental health related symptoms and is it a viable mental health treatment/management option?

Researchers have demonstrated that exercise can help lower depression across a variety of demographics (age, race, culture, ethnicity, etc). Research findings have suggested that exercise can begin to lower depression from the very first session with the antidepressant effects persisting long after the session has ended. How realistic is exercise for those who are severely depressed? For some people diagnosed with major depression for example, just getting out of bed in the morning is an exercise feat itself. People with depression are often unfairly labelled as “lazy” and “unmotivated”. The burden and expectation of exercise then can make a depressed person feel much worse.

With respects to anxiety, regular physical activity can help to protect against anxiety disorders and anxiety symptoms. Some studies suggest that the odds of a reduction in anxiety symptoms can range between 30% and 60% for those who engage in regular exercise compared to those who don’t exercise. Engaging in exercise will help you to divert your attention away from the very thing you are anxious about. Exercise can also change your brain chemistry by increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids. Exercise is also good for the frontal regions of the brain which controls working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control.

When we are constantly exposed to stress our bodies can become very tense. We typically feel this tension in our necks, backs, face, shoulders and just throughput our bodies in general. We might even experience tension headaches and stomach complaints. Exercise can help to relive this tension and relieve these symptoms. Particularly stretching exercises like yoga or Pilates. Exercising not only releases endorphins into the brain, exercise helps to relax muscles, joints and tendons. Since our minds are so closely intertwined with our minds, when our bodies feel relaxed so to will our minds.

Most people know that exercise drains us of energy and it is therefore logical to believe that if we exercise then we can sleep better. A lack of regular and consistent sleep has been found to impair cognitive performance, mood, glucose metabolism, appetite regulation, and immune function. Researchers and scientists alike often suggest that adults need between 7 and 8 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night however the majority of people globally rarely experience this luxury. Exercise can assist the body to become more tired however if a person is consuming large amounts of stimulants (caffeine, tobacco, etc) then they will cancel out the effects of the exercise as the mind will remain in a hyperactive state.

A number of studies have demonstrated that regular and consistent aerobic exercise can have a positive impact on the brain. The short-term effects of exercise can improve information processing speed, working memory, attention, cognitive flexibility, decision making and impulse control. The long-term effects of consistent and regular exercise can improve grey matter volume in various areas of the brain which can improve cognitive functions such as spatial memory along with improving stress coping. Elderly people who exercise regularly have been shown to resist the shrinking of hippocampus which is responsible for age-related cognitive declines.

It is important to remember that whilst exercise is proven to be beneficial for mental health, the practicalities of exercise can be challenging for people with depression for example or even for people restricted by time and space (busy work schedules, families, COVID-19 isolations/quarantines). Sometimes the expectation or burden of exercise (“I should be exercising”, “Why am I being so lazy”?) can negatively influence mental health. Likewise, there are plenty of people who don’t exercise who don’t have mental health concerns and there are people who do exercise and do have mental health concerns. Exercise is not a one shoe fits all answer.

Please also seek advice from a licensed medical practitioner before starting any new exercise regime. Your health is always of primary concern and whilst exercise can have mental health benefits, it can also have physical health deficits for people who push themselves too far or too fast. For those people who can engage in regular and consistent exercise, they are likely to notice improvements in their mental health. Exercise is not a cure though and not a replacement for prescribed medications or therapy. Again, like I mentioned earlier, not exercising shouldn’t be attached to shame or thoughts of “laziness” etc. Everyone will naturally go with their own flow wherever that takes them.