Exercise for Good Mental Health
If, like me, you exercise regularly, you probably do it because it makes you feel good, and maybe because it makes you look good, too. If you just did it because you ‘had’ to, and didn’t enjoy it, it’s unlikely to become a regular part of your life and that’s often where the dreaded New Years Resolutions fail (but that’s a topic for another blog).
New Years Resolutions aside, there are many reasons why exercise should be part of our daily life and one that’s getting an increasing amount of attention is for its benefit on our mental health.
Mental health statistics are shocking. Most of us, thanks to campaigns like those run by Heads Together are aware that 1 in 4 of us will face mental health challenges in our lives, but did you know that suicide is the biggest cause of death in men under 45? Not road accidents, not heart disease, not cancer, but suicide. Something that shocked me when I came across that particular figure, and something that lead us, as Inspired To Change, to adopt CALM as our featured charity (have a look at the bottom of this article for more on this)
Worryingly, in a recent survey of primary teachers, over 90% of them agreed that they had already come across pupils with mental health challenges.
Now, in part, the increase in these statistics can be explained by better awareness and diagnosis of mental health issues which has to be seen as a positive trend, but the overall increase in mental health issues is something that needs to be addressed – and wouldn’t it be great if something as straightforward as exercise could be part of the solution?
Let’s have a look at how that might be possible.
When we exercise, our heart rate goes up in order to increase the amount of blood flowing through our body, particularly our muscles, to deal with the increased effort we are demanding of them. This increase in blood flow also happens in the brain, too, bringing it increased fuel and taking away waste products which is clearly handy, but there are other wider ranging effects happening in the brain as a result of exercise.
Changes in the levels of molecules known as neurotransmitters affect how we feel and how our brains operate. Neurotransmitters are the messengers that brain cells, or neurones, use to communicate with each other. Some are able to turn on or turn off pathways that can affect physical processes outside the brain, too.
There are literally hundreds of neurotransmitters and neuroscience is still working out the exact role of each but one of the main ones that has been extensively studied is serotonin. Serotonin is popularly referred to as our ‘happiness chemical’ because its release at interconnecting neurones in the brain leads to us feeling happier, more motivated, and more confident. It does other key things, too, which I’ll come back to later.
Dopamine is another well known neurotransmitter. It’s involved in lighting up brain pathways that make us feel excited and positive when we anticipate doing something. When that ‘something’ is exercise, it gives us the desire for doing it, as well as a ‘feel good’ reward for completing it – that familiar sense of ‘woooooo!’ we get after winning, lifting a record weight, achieving a personal best, scoring a goal, or completing a marathon! Dopamine is an important part of the brain’s pleasure and reward system, responsible for the drive to do the ‘something’ again and again, and hence it’s a big component of our motivation to exercise regularly. Cells and pathways that respond to dopamine are also involved in muscle coordination, to keep them running smoothly.
If you exercise with others, and benefit from their encouragement, support and compliments on your performance, there’s likely to be higher levels of oxytocin in your brain as a result. Oxytocin is commonly known as the ‘cuddle chemical’ as it’s released following close contact, such as between a mother and her child, or romantic partners, but it’s also responsible for that warm, fuzzy feeling of ‘belonging’, perhaps as part of a group, sports team, or community.
Another, less well-known neurotransmitter is a protein snappily called ‘brain derived neurotrophic factor’, usually known as just BDNF. This is vital for the development and growth of neurones when we are growing up and still has a role in our adult brains in looking after existing neurones as well as supporting the development of new cells and, crucially, of making new connections between them. BDNF is released in our brains following the muscle stimulation that happens with exercise, especially after fairly strenuous activities like running, swimming or cycling, and in exercise that requires balance and complex muscle coordination, like dancing, or rock climbing. This is thought to be an important part of how exercise improves our cognitive function.
Interestingly, the more intense the exercise, the more BDNF is made, with repeated short but very intense exercise sessions increasing BDNF levels quickly, making good evidence for the effectiveness of high intensity interval training (HIIT)
BDNF is important for processing emotions, but is vital for learning and for efficient memory; in particular, our working memory. It’s our working memory that allows us to remember names, facts, phone numbers or shopping lists for a short time and is the component of memory first affected in Dementia.
This is not to say that exercise will increase your IQ, or make you smarter, or all footballers would be geniuses, but it does seem to optimise your brain for learning. Studies show that people who exercise regularly consistently show much lower levels of the cognitive decline associated with ageing. They also show a lower incidence of illnesses such as Alzheimer’s, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) and schizophrenia.
Studies in children and young people have repeatedly shown that exercise improves their focus in class, as well as their ability to do well in exams, so maybe one solution to the mental health challenges facing our youngsters might be to get PE back on the curriculum more often.
So to get back to our mental health, it looks as though by manipulating all these neurotransmitters, exercise can make us feel better physically as well as mentally.
Anyone that has worked with me, or any of my Inspired To Change colleagues will have heard us talk about the importance of serotonin. We talk about it A LOT. That’s because serotonin has many positive effects within the brain, and elsewhere in the body.
It is involved in memory, and learning, and in our overall sense of well-being, which is why so much research has gone into studying it.
Most antidepressants alter how serotonin is dealt with in the brain – they commonly stop it being recycled, so that the amounts released by the neurones hang around for longer, helping to lift our mood. But as well as affecting our mood, serotonin also affects how well we sleep, how well we heal, and how we deal with stress, aggression, empathy, anxiety and pain. Important stuff indeed!
We feel happy when we have plenty of serotonin being released – it’s part of the pleasure and reward system that evolved in our brains as we evolved to become more sophisticated humans. But like most neurotransmitters or chemicals involved in pleasure, and reward, its effects are short lived because our brain recycles it to be released again.
This is one reason why I often hear people saying their antidepressants ‘don’t work’, and they think they need a higher dose. The drugs are there, they are doing their job, but there isn’t enough serotonin being made and so trying to recycle it isn’t helping!
To get the most out of serotonin, and of antidepressants, we need to ensure a nice steady flow of the happy stuff. This means we have to keep doing the things that encourage serotonin release again and again throughout the day. I refer to these things in my work with clients as the “Three P’s” because they are all positive – positive actions, or things that we do, positive interactions with people around us, and positive ways of thinking. Exercise brings all these P’s together, to give us a sense of enhanced mental well being as a result of its effects on the various neurotransmitters, before we even start to consider the physical benefits!
So why doesn’t everybody exercise if it’s that good for us?
Depressed people have disturbed levels of neurotransmitters, meaning that their pleasure, motivation and reward pathways aren’t as effective. This is more than likely to make it harder for them to get going with exercise in the first place. They are likely to need real encouragement to start exercising and may well not be able to commit to doing something as strenuous or organised as the gym. But the good news here is that any kind of exercise will have a positive effect, so even just walking to the shops, or around the park with the dog will have an uplifting effect on mood, and the all-important levels of neurotransmitters, particularly serotonin.
Perhaps the key to using exercise for benefiting and preserving our mental health is to get started on a regular routine of doing something before we get down and unable to contemplate it? The government’s recommendation to do 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week is relatively doable without too much time pressure on busy people. That figure amounts to 30 minutes, five times a week of anything that raises your heart rate and makes you slightly out of breath, to bring us the brain boosting effects. I think it’s also important to remember that ‘exercise’ doesn’t have to be formal gym based classes, or traditional sport or require any specialist equipment – it can be literally anything that raises our heart rate and gets us moving, so housework, playing games in the park with the children, walking to work or even just dancing round the kitchen all count!
Get your body moving, and get your brain happy! ?
I would love to hear your thoughts on how you’ve used exercise to benefit your mental health, or any questions you might have, so get in touch.
If you’d like to find out more about how Inspired To Change are supporting the vital work of CALM, check out our founder’s mission here.
About the Author: Claire Noyelle practices from her tranquil garden therapy room at her home in Bearsted, Maidstone East, in the heart of the garden county of Kent. Claire is a member of the Association for Solution Focused Hypnotherapists, National Council for Hypnotherapy and the Complimentary and Natural Healthcare Council and a member of both the General Pharmaceutical Council and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society.
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