Is exercise the wonder drug?
Most people know that exercise is good for us in the general sense; in the same way that they know celery is healthy and hot dogs are junk food. But what do we really know about it and what does it mean for our mental health?
Exercise has many positive effects on the brain. It helps to reduce anxiety and depression, and is thought to be even as effective as antidepressants in some cases. Exercise also improves sleep, which is often intrinsically associated with stable wellbeing.
So how does it work? Well, exercising immediately increases the level of dopamine (linked to motivational drive and pleasure) and serotonin (linked to reduced depression, anxiety, better sleep).
Exercise is also considered to offset stress. Specifically, it is understood that exercise stimulates an area of the brain responsible for emotional processing and releases GABA neurotransmitters (nicknamed the anti-anxiety molecule). This helps your threat system to be more discerning, making you less reactive to stress. Ergo, those who exercise regularly are wired to respond to stress differently. Curiously, regular yoga is associated with activity reduction in the area of our brain linked to our emotions, yet more activity in the brain area associated with empathy and reading others’ emotions.
Exercise has also been found to act like “miracle grow for the brain”; amazingly, performing such feats as enhancing memory and cognitive functions; reducing the impact of cognitive decline and improving brain injury recovery. As if that wasn’t impressive enough, we can see that some areas of the brain grow more than others. For example, exercising enlarges the areas of the brain associated with memory, task management, co-ordination, planning and inhibition. I can barely remember my own name after one CrossFit class, but I must be the exception to the rule!
Still not sold? In addition, it is thought that exercise produces physiological effects similar to the drugs used to manage attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. For example, improved impulse control, motor and cognitive function, and better attention and emotional processing.
Even better news is that you don’t have to be an Olympian or spend every spare moment of your life in the gym to reap these benefits. As little as ten to 15 minutes of exercise can make a difference, and walks in nature can be just as useful as heavy lifting. For those looking to improve their mood via exercise, there may be some differential benefits in different types of exercise:
• For memory: aerobics, walking, cycling, dance
• For stress and anxiety: yoga, walking (especially in nature)
• For depression: aerobic and resistance/strength training. Running has been found to have meditative effects
• For brain fog and concentration: yoga, aerobic classes, dance
That said, the most effective exercise will always be the one you stick to, so personal preference and enjoyment are vital. Note what exercise makes you feel good, energised, more relaxed or less stressed. Outdoor activities are said to be even more effective for depression.
The most amazing thing about exercising to help your mood? Well, the side effects, of course! Killer abs and improving your physical health, to boot!
It’s a win, win, win!
• Gemma Harris, ClinPsyD, is Director of Corporate Wellness at Solstice, and writes on Instagram as @theexdoctor