Here’s How Fitness Improves Mental Health
What you do in the gym, doesn’t just stay in the gym. It transcends every area of your life – your relationships with others, your performance at work, the way you sleep – and, your mental health.
The correlation between exercise and mental health is well-established; the more regularly you exercise, the better you’ll feel. In fact, some studies have gone so far as to use exercise as a tool to treat mental health disorders, much like you would a medication. Interestingly, these studies have found that exercise can alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety in the same way (if not better than) a prescription medication.
So how does fitness improve mental health? Let’s get into it.
The Growing Need For Mental Health
According to a 2019 study conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA), the rate of mental health issues has increased significantly in young adults over the last decade.
Unfortunately, as you may have guessed, the pandemic exacerbated this. A 2020 follow-up survey conducted by the APA found that more than a third of adults admitted that the pandemic is having a ‘serious impact’ on their mental health.
Even though a few years have passed since the pandemic, the elevated rates of mental health issues are still prevalent, with one in five Canadians experiencing a mental illness.
What Happens In Your Brain When You Exercise?
When you exercise, a number of biochemical, hormonal, physiological, and psychological adaptations occur.
1. Rush of feel-good chemicals
You may have heard about endorphins, but they’re just one piece of the feel-good puzzle. Endorphins are hormones that work alongside other neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin, and brain-derived neurotrophic factor (we’ll come onto this!).
These chemicals are released during and after exercise and work by decreasing your perception of pain, improving mental clarity, and making you feel a sense of deep happiness. Runners often refer to this feeling as “runner’s high”, but it’s the same sensation produced during other types of exercise too!
2. Release of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF)
BDNF is a protein produced inside nerve cells, and it’s responsible for a process known as neurogenesis. Neurogenesis is the process by which new neurons are formed. Researchers have found that people with severe mental health issues like depression often have lower rates of neurogenesis and damaged neurons. Combating this by exercising more effectively hits a “reset” button in the brain, helping to heal your mind at the source.
3. Increases blood flow
When you start moving your body, blood flow increases. This delivers nutrient-rich blood to your mind and muscles, which can help to mitigate stagnant energy and brain fog. This helps your brain work better, specifically the hippocampus.
The hippocampus is the part of your brain responsible for regulating your mood, fear, motivation, learning, and memory recall. Hippocampal atrophy occurs in depression, and due to its role in fear mediation, can also exacerbate anxiety.
Studies have also found that oxygen levels in the brain are a key predictor of depression and other mental health issues. Moving your body increases oxygenation, and as a result, alleviates symptoms and helps you feel better.
How These Changes Can Improve Mental Health
Aside from the immediate changes that occur during exercise, regular physical activity also has a long-lasting effect on mental health, here’s how.
1. Gets you out of your head
Chronic stress, depression, and anxiety are all characterized by incessant thinking and being “in your head”. By simply exercising and moving your body, you’re focusing on movement and not your thoughts. This is why some experts refer to exercise as an act of mindfulness.
Plus, if you’re exercising in a group class or with a personal trainer, you’re also interacting with others, which can help you feel connected.
2. Boosts self-esteem
Having low self-confidence can impact the way you show up in the world and worsen mental health. A clinical trial published in Neuropsychiatric Disease and Treatment in 2016 found that physical activity is directly associated with self-esteem, perceived physical fitness and body image.
When you feel more confident in yourself, you’re more likely to practice positive habits like socializing, eating healthily, and taking care of yourself.
3. Increases social connectivity
We all want to feel connected socially, but unfortunately, when you’re struggling with your mental health, it’s difficult to feel comfortable or motivated to be around others. It’s a viscious cycle: the more time you spend alone, the worse you feel.
Being part of the Gold’s Gym BC community, you’ll always have someone to talk to and like-minded people to be around. Many of our members build lasting friendships with the people they meet at the gym. If you’re feeling low, get involved.
4. Improves physical health markers
Your mental and physical health are closely connected. If you’re sedentary, eating unhealthy food, and not taking good care of yourself – you’re not going to thrive mentally.
For example, eating highly processed food that is high in saturated fat and sugar causes inflammation. Inflammation is one of the markers of disease and mental health issues. That’s perhaps why studies have concluded that junk food causes depression.
Similarly, excess body fat correlates with depression risk. A study published in Translational Psychiatry found that per 20 lbs of excess body, the risk of depression increases by 17 percent.
Regular exercise helps to regulate your body weight and improve key health markers like triglycerides, blood pressure, and inflamamtion.
5. Improves work performance
When you’re struggling with your mental health, other areas of your life are also impacted, like your career. The good news is that exercise has been shown to increase work performance, by way of enhancing cognitive function and regulating mood. This is due to BDNF and the effect on the hippocampus.
A study published in 2013 gave a group of participants a working memory test after before and after exercising for 15 minutes. The researchers found that compared to a control group, those who exercised saw an increase in their working memory. This gives an insight into how the hippocampus benefits from exercise, even if it’s just for 15 minutes.
Want to improve your mental health? Exercise!
It may feel difficult to start a workout routine when you’re feeling low, which is why it might be beneficial to work with a personal trainer or join a group fitness class. Once you start exercising, you’ll feel the effects immediately. When it comes a regular habit, you’ll feel happier and healthier.
It’s time to take the first step.