Your mental health needs you to get moving. Here’s how to boost your brain-body connection.
Self-care, rest, and therapy are so important to prioritize your mental health. But, perhaps too often, the physical side to staying mentally healthy goes overlooked.
The benefits of exercise don’t end at physical fitness. A
How exactly does breaking a sweat improve mental fitness? Your stress response is largely produced by the interactions among the hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands (HPA).
Getting your blood flowing through daily movement activates your stress response systems. As exercise engages the HPA network, it helps the system adapt and buffer your cortisol output when other stressful events occur.
That’s right. Exercise is the good stress you choose that helps your body handle involuntary stressors.
You’ll also feel the mood-lifting effects of released neurotransmitters (brain messengers), including serotonin, dopamine, and endorphins.
What are 10 benefits of exercise? Besides a stronger body, you’ll notice these mental health impacts with regular exercise:
- mood lifting
- decrease in depression symptoms
- decrease in anxiety symptoms
- stress reduction
- deeper sleep
- reduction in risk for dementia
- improved cognitive functioning
- anger management
- improved attention span
If you’re a sweat-averse person and dread the idea of exercise, keep it simple. Consider a walk with a friend or dancing in your home.
You can start to see the mental health benefits nearly immediately. Just one session of 30-minute moderate aerobic exercise, such as a brisk walk, has shown to decrease short-term anxiety.
Your total mental health picture is a mosaic of psychological, social, and emotional elements.
Some of the mental health benefits from exercising overlap with cognitive improvements, like memory and attention. Cognitive health can help you show up as your best self in social settings, like in your community or at work, and form more meaningful connections with those in your close circles.
Regular exercise can improve your quality of life through the following mental health benefits:
1. Reduces nonclinical depression
Getting up and getting active can feel like the last thing you want to do when you experience the lows of depressive symptoms.
If you’re having difficulty breaking through a depressive episode, but aren’t quite into clinical depression territory (you could be diagnosed if your depressive symptoms last more than 2 weeks), then a little aerobic exercise could be exactly what you need to boost your mental health.
Researchers asked university students with nonclinical depressive symptoms to participate in low to moderate aerobic exercise during a 6-week trial. The
2. Improves memory
Do you remember what you had for lunch yesterday? Ever walk into a room, only to forget what you’re doing and turn right back around? Or embarrassingly forget a person’s name you’ve met more than a few times?
Forgetfulness happens, but sharpening your memory is possible by adding some physical exercise into your routine. A well-established body of
Exercising regularly throughout your life is thought to build up cerebral reserves that can preserve brain function, including memory, in your later years.
3. Increases gray matter
Your gray matter is anything but dull. It’s an essential component of your brain that enriches life through movement control, memory, self-control, emotional and stress regulation. Higher amounts of gray matter have also been linked to intelligence. In short, your cognitive and mental health absolutely depends on the health of your brain’s gray matter.
Some neurodegenerative diseases, like Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, can destroy neurons in gray matter. But 2014 research demonstrates physical exercise can also increase gray matter in your hippocampus and frontal lobe.
4. Prolongs attention
Opportunities for distraction abound in the modern era. And, chances are you have a smartphone companion in your pocket just begging to distract you from your job, coursework, or playtime with your little one. Cardiovascular exercise can help you counter distractions and get your to-do list done.
A recent study of 40 sedentary adults found that running on a treadmill 3 times a week for 16 weeks showed an overall increase in alpha wave patterns in the brain.
Brain wave patterns called alpha are associated with attention-focused tasks. So, more alpha power equals a greater capacity to focus. Attention focus in the brain is also used for imagination, daydreaming, and mindfulness — important practices for your mental health.
5. Reduces anger
Emotions are a pillar of mental health and wellness. And when the most difficult emotions aren’t managed in a healthy way, they can cause behaviors that could harm your physical and mental well-being.
Anger is a natural response to stressful situations. It’s not to be ignored and requires an outlet that doesn’t harm yourself or others.
Instead of bottling it up, daily exercise and physical exertion have been shown to lower baseline anger levels. In this 2019 study, nurses found physical activity to be a reliable form of anger management and lowered their state anger levels.
6. Contributes to anxiety reduction
Feeling fearful, hypervigilant, or heart-racing palpitations are all symptoms of a stressed HPA axis. These stress responses can appear unprovoked sometimes, and they mirror general anxiety disorder symptoms.
You may already treat generalized anxiety disorder with traditional therapy, but 2020 research also shows that exercise is an accessible way to reign in the cortisol. The study specifically found resistance exercise training to be an effective cortisol regulator.
Exercise deficiency is real, so don’t put too much pressure on yourself to vigorously work out every day if you’re just starting out.
Some exercise is better than none, and a 30-minute walk is shown to have immediate mental health benefits.
You can keep progress, not perfection, in mind, knowing that whatever movement you can muster, even if it’s just a walk to the mailbox, makes a difference.
You might choose a type of exercise that suits your ability and preferences, like yoga for stretching, water exercises for low impact, or cycling to help prevent heart disease.
Before you know it, regular physical activity could be routine.