What are the benefits of exercise on mental health?

What are the benefits of exercise on mental health
Benefits of exercise on mental health

“It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigour.”, wrote the Roman philosopher Cicero. Since then, we learnt by which mechanisms exercise indeed supports our health beyond just controlling weight and building strong bones, muscles, and joints.

It is well known that exercise activates “happiness hormones” called endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin. Here we dig more into what the recent research says and expose some key take-aways to change our lifestyles towards healthier habits that will protect and  improve our mental health.

What the research says

Increasingly robust evidence suggests that exercise can not only help maintain a good mental health but can also be used as treatment of chronic mental illnesses such as mild to moderate depression, dementia and anxiety, and might even reduce cognitive imbalances in schizophrenic patients[1].

How? Exercise directly affects the brain. It does this by increasing the volume of certain brain regions – in part through better blood supply and delivery of nutrients and oxygen, which improves neuronal health. One brain region fundamental to mental health is the hippocampus: this area regulates emotions, learning skills and memory; and several studies have shown that exercise leads to creation of new neurons in the hippocampus (a process called neurogenesis).

In parallel to that, evidence is accumulating to show that some mental illnesses are linked to a decrease in neurogenesis in the hippocampus. Interestingly enough, many anti-depressants, which were thought to work through their impact on the serotonin levels, are now focused on increasing neurogenesis in the hippocampal region of the brain[2].

So, how do all of this come together? Theories suggest that new hippocampal neurons improve our ability to store new memories, allowing better mental flexibility. Mental illnesses such as depression are characterized by a cognitive inflexibility that prevents the individual from breaking bad habits or even acknowledge new information. It is therefore plausible that exercise positively impacts our mental health in general, by giving us the ability to better process information and use what we already know to see new solutions and change.

How to get started… and maintain your habits

In the UK, the NHS recommends adults to do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity every week. This can include walking, hiking, or cycling but more intense activities like swimming, running and group sports are recommended as well. Any activity that raises your heart rate, makes you feel warmer and breathe faster counts towards exercise.

It is important to make a plan when it comes to starting exercising: find support amongst your friends and family, plan time in advance, make it part of your daily life (even for a few minutes), and set long-term goals. The best benefits of exercise on mental health have been noticed after 10 to 12 weeks of regular activity. This might seem daunting at first but remember that one hour only represents 4% of your day! Plus, the brain has a trick to help you maintain an active routine: even small improvements in exercise levels create a positive upward spiral that increases the reward signal created by dopamine receptors. This way, exercise will eventually become rewarding.

To support that rewarding mechanism and stay on track, you can use apps such as Strava which let you track different activities, Runtastic for addict runners – or Couch to 5k app, an NHS program for beginner running, Asana Rebel for an introduction to yoga and fitness, or simply the Health features or apps that come with your IOS or Android phone.

The positive impacts of exercise

The health benefits of exercise go beyond mental health, but every benefit will, in the long run, positively impact your mental balance. These benefits include[3]:

  • Stress relief
  • Improved sleep
  • Increased interest in sex
  • Better endurance
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

Lockdown measures in the UK have been extended for a few more weeks. As social distancing rules perdure, it might become increasingly difficult for some people to maintain mental health. At the same time, a significant chunk of the population has been able to exercise at home, notably thanks to free online workout classes, and some have also picked up running as the streets emptied and parks remained open. Starting a training plan now is especially relevant, as it should help with dealing with feelings of isolation and anxiety.

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/#i1523-5998-8-2-106-b5

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3121947/

[3] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/