Living an active lifestyle is undoubtedly one of the best ways to maintain and improve our health. Increased physical activity through exercising brings a string of benefits to our well-being, which is why doctors advise that we incorporate it into our daily lives. But did you know that the benefits gained from exercise go beyond the physical aspect of our health?
Latest data shows that the rates of depression and anxiety are at their highest recorded levels in countries such as India, China, the U.S., and the UK. Many features of “modern life” such as increasing social isolation, poor diets, a focus on money and image are said to contribute to this problem. Inactivity is also considered a key factor in the prevalence of these mental health issues worldwide.
Exercise is a well-known stimulator of endorphins and enkephalins production, which are the body’s natural feel-good hormones which can make problems seem more manageable. This is the reason why most of us have improved moods after a sunny walk or trip to the gym, even though the effects are short term. Also, the basic act of focusing on exercise could serve as a distraction from obsessing about our current concerns and self-talk that could be damaging.
Depending on the activity, people may benefit from calming exercises, feel energized, and be encouraged to go outside and interact with others – activities which are known to improve mood and general health.
More importantly, there is robust evidence supporting the fact that exercise is not only necessary for the maintenance of good mental health – it can also be used to treat chronic mental diseases. For instance, it is evident that exercise reduces the risk of depression and also maintains mental health as we grow older. On the treatment aspect, exercise appears to be at parallel with existing pharmacological interventions across a range of conditions, such as mild to moderate depression, dementia, and anxiety, and even reduces cognitive issues in schizophrenia.
How does exercise help with all of these?
Exercise has a direct effect on our brains. Exercising regularly increases the volume of certain brain regions – through an increase in neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signaling, growth, and connections; and through better blood supply that improves neuronal health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients.
The hippocampus is of critical importance for mental health – it is the area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning. Studies in other animals show that exercise helps with the creation of new hippocampal neurons (neurogenesis), with preliminary evidence suggesting this is also true in humans.
Many mental health conditions are attributed to the decrease of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, and evidence proving this is particularly strong for depression. Many anti-depressants that were once thought to work through their effects on the serotonin system are now known to increase neurogenesis in the hippocampus.
So how much exercise would you really need to achieve optimum mental health?
Psychiatrist Madhukar Trivedi says that three or more sessions per week of aerobic exercise or resistance training, for 45 to 60 minutes per session, can help treat even chronic depression. The effects are noticed after about four weeks, which is also how long neurogenesis takes. Training should be continued for 10-12 weeks for the greatest anti-depressant effect.
Of course, exercise levels below these recommended amounts are still beneficial, and the side effects such as weight loss, increased energy, better skin, improved physical health are desirable in themselves.
If you think that the recommended amount of exercise above is too daunting, you don’t have to worry because your brain will make it easier for you. When you make small improvements in exercise levels or diet, it creates a positive upward spiral that increases the sensitivity of the dopamine receptors that signal reward, which means that exercise will eventually become rewarding.
To learn more about the benefits of exercise for your mental health watch below the TED talk by the prominent neuroscientist, Wendy Suzuki.
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