“Exercising your way to a healthy mind” – Aaron Vice
Have you ever sat back after a strenuous workout, and despite being drenched in sweat and feeling physically exhausted, felt great mentally? Have you ever pushed through adversity, and made it to the gym in a bad mood, and left in a good one? Most of us exercise with the goal of improving our physical health: to lose weight, manage preventable chronic diseases, increase muscle mass, or increase strength. But the benefits of exercise reach far beyond what the eye can see. Highly stigmatized, and often left out of the “health conversation”, is mental health. Exercise is also an excellent tool that is underutilized for improving our mental health.
Psychologically, exercise provides a multitude of benefits often left undiscussed. Among some of these benefits are: improved mood, decreased symptoms of depression and anxiety, and reduced stress.
When we exercise, our body is put under stress, and sometimes, pain. One of our body’s response is to produce a neurochemical called an endorphin. These endorphins can be thought of as a natural pain killer as they help minimize pain. It is theorized that this pain suppression caused by the endorphins lead to feelings of euphoria (commonly referred to as “the runners high”). Not only can this lead to a boost in daily mood, this endorphin release (sustained through long term exercise adherence) is also being studied as one of the possible reasons exercise can help alleviate depression symptoms.
Research has also linked low serotonin and norepinephrine levels to people who have depression. An argument can be made these neurotransmitters (serotonin and norepinephrine), which have increased production during exercise, are what create the feeling of post exercise euphoria and alleviation of stress and depression symptoms.
It is currently being researched that exercise may be able to reduce our stress levels because exercise is giving our body a chance to practice dealing with stress. Exercise forces our physiological systems to communication continually (which stress on the systems), which over time, will cause them to become more efficient at communicating; it is proposed that these same systems, which are also proponents of our stress response system, then become more efficient at dealing with stress that is not induced by exercise.
Lastly, individuals who experience anxiety may also benefit from exercise by decreasing anxiety sensitivity. When we exercise, our body experiences physiological changes that are very similar to the ones we experience when our acute stress response (“Fight or Flight”) is triggered. As individuals with anxiety often respond to these sensations with fear, it can be argued that exercise can be used as a pseudo exposure therapy and help individual dissociate these sensations from fear.
Although researchers are still pin pointing the exact reasons why exercise improves mood and reduces stress, anxiety, and depression symptoms, they all agree on one thing: it’s undeniable that exercise makes us feel better. So, the next time life has you stressed out and hiding in your bed, go exercise instead!