Exercise doesn’t just improve your physical appearance, but it has a profound impact on your mental state. Exercise can improve our overall mood, energy levels, memory, and sleep, and more recent research shows the proven natural benefits it can have in low-moderate levels of depression, anxiety, and ADHD.
What happens to the brain when we exercise?
When we exercise, natural neurotransmitters are released by the brain. These neurotransmitters consist of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins – which promote feelings of happiness, euphoria, and reduced pain. These effects are artificially mimicked by particular anti-depressants and anxiety medication, prescribed to those who live with these disorders. Exercising therefore may help naturally boost the levels of these neurotransmitters in the body – reducing the need for certain medications over time. Consult your doctor before changing any medication you have been prescribed.
Brain Benefits of Exercise
> Reduced Stress
Stress is common among most of us in society these days. The pace at which life flies by can lead to us feeling flustered, drained, tired, and overwhelmed. Exercise not only causes the release of the substances mentioned above, but it more simply can provide a healthy distraction for the brain – a period of time where we are taken out from our chaotic lives, and focused on the exact task at hand whether that is running, lifting weights, doing yoga…whatever it may be! By slowing down and removing ourselves from the constant inputs our brain receives throughout the day, we give our brain time to process what we need to do, and decisions that need to be made – without directly thinking about and stressing over them.
Suggested activities: vinyasa yoga, running, walking, swimming, resistance training
> Improved sleep
Sleep is critical as it is the most restorative phase of life we experience. Physical activity has been shown to increase the time spent in a deep sleep each night, as well as improve the quality and length of sleep – meaning our bodies and brains are able to perform at their highest levels during waking hours. Aim to get 7-8hours of quality sleep each night, and if you are unable to do so – create a block of time in your day where you can have a nap to ensure you are getting enough rest. By improving your sleep, you can also improve your mental clarity, reduce anxiety, and decrease your risk of obesity and other preventable diseases.
Suggested activities: yin yoga before bed, pilates, HIIT training, resistance training
> Natural happiness
Studies looking into natural serotonin levels in the brain during and after periods of exercise – have concluded that physical activity can help in the treatment as well as prevention of depression. Serotonin is the body’s natural ‘happiness neurotransmitter’, and has an important role in memory, learning, and controlling cognition.
When we physically exert ourselves, our bodies produce more serotonin – leading to increased feelings of happiness. For those with depression, physical activity can naturally produce the levels of serotonin that are artificially created by anti-depressants and reduce the need for these drugs (Young, 2007).
The research into this effect is still relatively new, however, the current findings could be life-changing, and further research is currently being conducted in order to establish more set exercise guidelines for proven benefits. Consult your doctor before changing any medication you have been prescribed.
Suggested activities: swimming, HIIT training, resistance training, endurance training
There is still much research to be conducted, and so much to uncover – but for now, the findings sway in favour of exercise, and the benefits it has on mental health. As well as this, exercise improves mobility, strength, flexibility, joint and bone health, and overall energy levels – so even if you don’t start moving for the mental health benefits, you can gain so much more to improve your overall health! However, please remember to consult your health care professional prior to commencing any new physical activity or changing any medications you have previously been prescribed.