Whenever you do manage to get yourself up off the couch and out the door for a walk or a cycle, you always feel better afterwards. How does that work and how can physical activity and getting a sweat on help you improve your mental health and mood?
Physical activity boosts blood flow to the brain, as well as causing your brain to release your happy hormones of endorphins and serotonin. These chemicals improve your mood and reduce stress.
The increase of blood flow to your brain allows more blood to circulate to certain areas of the brain, and can help nourish and grow those areas. One important area in particular is your hippocampus. Your hippocampus helps regulate emotional behavior, memory and learning. As you exercise more, some studies have shown that physical activity can lead to growth of hippocampal neurons and improve the function of the hippocampus.
What are the benefits of physical activity for your mental health?
Reduction in stress
Stress is our body’s “fight or flight” response to things that are seen as a threat to our wellbeing. These hormones produced when you are stressed, like adrenaline and cortisol, increase your body’s heart rate and blood pressure, and can cause digestion problems as blood is taken away from your intestines and redirected to your limbs in preparation for a fight or running away from danger.
Physical exercise can increase the production of norepinephrine, which helps your brain and body deal with stress and anxiety. Exercise also helps lower cortisol and adrenaline levels and, over time, you can become more resilient to stressors due to these changes in the chemical make-up of your body.
Improvement in memory
Being physically active is beneficial for your memory and cognition, and can help protect your brain against illness or injury. This is mainly due to the increase in blood flow to your brain, in addition to other indirect positive effects of exercise on the brain and body.
In the older population, there is an increase of people living with dementia and cognitive decline. Physical activity is seen as a protective measure to help prevent or lessen the effects of dementia. It has also been shown to delay the onset of the condition, and slow down further decline in people already living with dementia.
Impact on depression and anxiety
Exercise is often prescribed as an alternative treatment for people suffering from depression and anxiety. More robust evidence is now suggesting that exercise can be as effective as pharmacological intervention for the treatment of mental health conditions, such as anxiety and depression. This is again primarily due to the increase of blood flow to your brain and the effects it has on mood centers and stress centers in the brain.
Natural exercise is also not associated with the stigma that taking medication or seeing a psychotherapist for anxiety and depression seem to have. It is a low cost alternative with no harmful side effects and manifold benefits.
How much physical activity is needed?
Many studies showed that about 30 minutes a day of activity or exercise most days of the week is what you need to reap most of these benefits. Aerobic exercises are a great choice to get you moving.
This may sound like a lot, but it can be broken into smaller blocks throughout your day. You can start with simple changes like getting off your bus/train one stop earlier, parking further away when you go shopping, taking time to walk up and down the stairs/aisles, using the toilet on another floor at work, or simply cleaning your house — now that’s one heck of an exercise by itself!
If you are keen to get into a more regular workout routine, research shows that doing it with other people can have more long lasting benefits, as well as motivate you to keep going. Meeting a friend can help lower the anxiety of starting a new exercise routine and can make the experience much more enjoyable.
You should start noticing significant benefits and positive changes in your energy levels and mental state within a few days of regular exercise, and long term benefits will build up week after week.
What physical activity is best?
Basically, any form of physical movement is good for your physical and mental health. The activities that are believed to be most beneficial for improving mental wellbeing are group or team activities, such as cycling, gym workouts, jogging and recreational sports like softball or basketball.
But it is very important that the activity you choose is right for you, and you need to enjoy it to stick with it. There will be times when it is difficult and you feel like giving up, but that is part of getting into something new. If you start off doing an activity that you don’t enjoy, you are already making this journey more difficult, so if you hate swimming, don’t swim!
Find something you enjoy, stick with it for 4-6 weeks and once you see the amazing improvements in yourself and your life, you will not look back!