Dr Jenna Hebert
Reasons to Move: Benefits of Exercise on Mental Health
You’ve probably heard of “runner’s high” or the feel-good “endorphins” that are released during exercise. Or maybe you’ve experienced the elevated mood yourself that occurs following a workout.
Neuroscientists and psychologists have been studying the effects of exercise on the brain and on mental health for decades. There have been a number of studies on the topic. Here are four reasons to start moving for your mental health*:
Regular exercise can help to relieve depression. Studies have shown that aerobic or strength training are effective in reducing symptoms of depression. Why? Scientists think depression is due in part to a reduction in a molecule found in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF promotes the growth of new neurons but tends to be at reduced levels in people with depression. Antidepressants may work by increasing BDNF, and it turns out that exercise boosts BDNF as well.
Working out improves sleep quality and reduces insomnia, according to a review in Sleep Medicine Reviews. Given that poor sleep is associated with depressed mood, inability to focus, and motor function, exercise is important for those who toss and turn at night and can’t keep their eyes open during the day.
Exercise can reduce stress and anxiety. This may be intuitive for those who have experienced the mind-clearing effects of a workout. Exercise has been shown to reduce anxiety both in people with diagnosed anxiety disorders and people who experience mild day-to-day anxiety and stress. According to these studies, BDNF may play a role here as well. In addition, exercise increases levels of the the brain signaling chemical GABA, which has anxiety-reducing effects. Finally, some of the typical symptoms of anxiety, such as elevated heart rate and sweating, occur during exercise. When people are repeatedly exposed to anxiety symptoms like this during a workout, they may learn to dissociate their anxiety from its usual triggers.
Exercise boosts your mood. Studies have demonstrated that working out can elevate mood. In a study out of the Netherlands, exercisers also reported more general happiness and satisfaction with their lives than non-exercisers. Not to mention that knowing you’ve just done something good for your body, and brain, makes you feel great.
So to heed the advice of the former FLOTUS, Michelle Obama, #LetsMove !
*Note that while exercise may help to prevent mental health problems or relieve mild-moderate anxiety or depression, these are only suggestions, and they may not be effective or realistic for everyone, especially in severe cases.