It is well known that exercise improves mental health and is used in the treatment and management of mental health disorders, however, many are unaware of the mechanisms behind it; how exactly does exercise lead to an improved mental state and a reduction in mental distress symptoms?
Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety and depression are the two most common mental health diagnoses today. Below are some mechanisms by which exercise can help to reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression:
- Moving your body can reduce muscular tension which leads to reduced feelings of stress and anxiety.
- Raising your heart rate increases the release of serotonin, gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoid, which are important anti-anxiety neurochemicals.
- Exercise activates the frontal region of the brain promoting executive function, which helps with the management of complex thoughts and feelings.
- The physical and mental challenge that exercise imposes chronically bolsters resilience to better deal with difficult situations and emotions.
- Exercise serves as a great distraction from difficult thoughts and emotions.
- Improved aerobic fitness and breathing mechanics can reduce resting heart rate and feelings of shortness of breath.
One of the most common symptoms of mental illness is low energy; perhaps the earliest adaptation to regular exercise is increased energy levels, which makes physical activity a powerful antidote to combat feeling “sluggish” and lethargic. Below are some mechanisms that contribute to this process:
- Increased blood flow & tissue oxygenation.
- Increased production of vital hormones such as thyroid-stimulating hormone, testosterone, human growth hormone, and catecholamines, all of which help increase your metabolism (resting metabolic rate) and give you more energy.
- Improves blood glucose control and insulin sensitivity which helps to avoid the glycemic peaks & lows which can cause feelings of fatigue.
- Improved fat-burning efficiency, which overall leads to less energy required for everyday activities.
Self-Efficacy and Confidence
Low self-confidence, self-efficacy, and motivation are often associated with mental health issues. Exercise offers an excellent way to help improve these factors via:
- Improved self-image in short-term and long-term
- Offers a place for success and personal achievement while overcoming difficult tasks, increasing our capacity to deal with demands both mentally and physically.
- Increased muscle mass and strength.
- Improved skin health, look, and texture via increased muscle, collagen production, lymph flow, and decreased free radicals.
- Improved posture.
- Improved short-term and long-term mood and mindset, leading to a more positive view of self and others.
Decreased Inflammation & Pain
It is common for individuals who experience mental health struggles to also deal with pain and increased levels of inflammation. Exercise offers a strong defense against inflammation and pain via:
- Increased blood flow & joint lubrication, leading to improved healing.
- Reduced fat mass and adipose tissue inflammation.
- Releases positive endorphins including beta-endorphins which can actually have a stronger effect than morphine on your body!
- Increased strength and range of motion lead to improved joint and tissue health.
- Exercise can facilitate nerve growth in damaged pathways which causes neuropathic pain
- Chronic exercise has been shown to increase pain tolerance.
- Offers a distraction from painful areas in the body.
This article offers an overview of some of the mechanisms through which exercise improves mental health. However, the benefits of exercise really are endless! If you or someone you know experiences mental health struggles and does not partake in regular physical activity or exercise, please consider working with a qualified exercise professional, as this can be of great help in reducing mental health symptoms.
Make yourself and your health a priority this year and get in touch with me to start exercising your way to happiness and lower stress!
Clinical Exercise Physiologist