Most of us have gotten the message that physical activity is good for us. Countless studies have shown that regular exercise helps us maintain a healthful weight and prevents maladies such as diabetes, heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and others.
But have you thought about what physical exercise can do for your mental health? If you’ve done even a little reading on the subject, you’ve likely discovered that regular activity is helpful in preventing certain mental health conditions – or easing the symptoms we may already be suffering.
The pressures of modern life – including social isolation, poor diet, and an unhealthy focus on money and appearances – definitely contribute to high levels of depression and anxiety that we are seeing in countries as diverse as India, China, the U.S., and the U.K. But experts say that physical inactivity is also a factor.
Exercise is well known to stimulate the production of endorphins and enkephalins, the body’s natural feel-good hormones. The simple act of getting away from our work routines for a walk in the sunshine, a short bike ride or a round of golf gives us a break from worries and damaging self-talk. Time spent outdoors has even greater benefits since sunlight stimulates the production of serotonin, another natural chemical involved in helping us maintain a positive mood.
AN EMERGING FACTOR IN MENTAL HEALTH
Until recently, Western thinking – including the practice of medicine – has been based on the idea that the mind and body are separate systems. This implies that mental and physical health can be treated as two different concerns. A growing body of evidence proves that the brain and body are intimately connected, and the health of one will influence the wellbeing of the whole.
Experts are embracing findings that show exercise is not only necessary for good mental health but also an excellent treatment for many chronic conditions. For example, we now know that exercise reduces the likelihood of depression and maintains good mental health as we age. On the treatment side, exercise appears to be equally as good as medication in treating many individuals with mild to moderate depression, dementia and anxiety. It even reduces cognitive issues for those who live with schizophrenia.
HOW DOES EXERCISE HELP US MAINTAIN A HEALTHY BALANCE?
The answer is simple. Exercise directly affects the brain. In fact, regular physical activity increases the volume of certain brain regions. This is the result of better blood flow, which improves the health of neurons (the nerve cells that power the brain).
Exercise delivers a rich supply of oxygen and nutrients to our brain cells, which in turn stimulates the hormones that support neuron signaling, growth and connections. This literally helps build a healthier brain – and enables us to maintain steadier levels of the neurotransmitters that help to manage everyday stress.
Of critical importance for mental health is the hippocampus, an area of the brain involved in memory, emotional regulation, and learning. Animal studies have shown that exercise stimulates the growth of neurons in the hippocampus, and new evidence suggests this is true for humans, too.
Further research suggests that some mental health conditions, including depression, are related to reduced nerve cell growth in the hippocampus. Interestingly, many antidepressants that were once thought to work by boosting serotonin levels are now known to increase the growth of neurons in the hippocampus.
HOW MUCH EXERCISE DO YOU NEED?
The general consensus is that 2 or 3 weekly sessions of aerobic exercise – anything that stimulates deep breathing and makes you sweat a bit – can do substantial good. Weight training and other load-bearing exercises can be helpful, too, and may prevent other health problems such as osteoporosis. Choosing an activity you love and have ready access to will enable you to stick to your routine.
Can exercise actually treat mental health issues once symptoms are felt? One study shows that 3 or more sessions per week of aerobic exercise or resistance training can be effective in treating chronic depression. Participants worked out for 45 to 60 minutes each time, and positive effects were seen after about 4 weeks – the same period of time it takes to generate new neurons. Training should continue for 10 to 12 weeks for the best results.
Clearly, exercise isn’t the instant fix that popular culture has trained us to seek out. However, even if we can’t make it to the gym every other day, an increase in exercise will benefit our brains and bodies.
Researchers have discovered that even small improvements in exercise levels create a positive upward spiral in the brain, increasing the sensitivity of receptors that register rewards. This means that exercise becomes its own reward over time, even if we struggle in the beginning to establish a new routine.
A LIFETIME OF GOOD MENTAL HEALTH
As an experienced therapist working with individuals and couples in the Edmonton area, I am invested in your good health. I can support you in making simple, yet significant changes that will benefit your mind and body, helping you deal with everyday pressures better and even reducing the symptoms of any mental health conditions you are presently facing. Please contact me now to schedule a counselling session at a time that is convenient for you.