The benefits of exercise on mental health

by | | Mini Blog Series

For thousands of years, it has been thought that exercise has had a beneficial effect on our brains. To quote Plato “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection”.

More recently scientific research has concluded without any doubt that exercise contributes significantly to good mental health and wellbeing.

It is known that exercise can help to improve your mood, help you to sleep better, improve your confidence levels, boost memory and reduce levels of stress and anxiety.

The relationship between exercise and serotonin

When we exercise we produce a variety of chemicals that are really beneficial for us. If you have read some of my previous articles you would have heard of me talk about the neurotransmitter serotonin. Serotonin helps to regulate our mood and influence our thoughts, it also improves digestion, sleep and bone health. Exercise not only increases the amount of serotonin we produce but it will also keep it in our systems for longer.

Drs will often prescribe a type of medicine called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s) for people with conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression and PTSD. Many of these medicines work in the same way exercise by increasing serotonin levels and prolonging its beneficial effects.

How does exercise lower anxiety levels?

Anxiety is created by our thoughts. It’s not the events in our life that create anxiety but our thoughts around them. When we suffer from anxiety, in order to try and keep us safe from this event our brain will keep reminding us of it.

Anxiety is essentially fear, which is the memory of danger. If we suffer from anxiety our brains will constantly replay that memory, forcing us to live in fear.

The centre of this fear response is a part of our brain called the amygdala. One of its major roles is to keep us safe by signaling fear. When we suffer from anxiety, however, the ‘it’s all right the danger has passed’ signal never reaches the more intelligent part of our brains, so our amygdala runs amok and keeps reminding us of this fear.

Serotonin helps to calm our amygdala and in doing so it allows the more intelligent parts of our brain, the prefrontal cortex, to have more responsibility for our thinking. This part of our brain which is much more rational and logical can then assess the danger and make a decision as to if the threat is indeed real or if it is an imagined worry and therefore easily forgettable.

As we worry less and less then our anxiety levels are naturally lowered and we spend more time with our logical prefrontal cortex in charge of our thinking, rather than our more emotional amygdala.

What exercise should I do and for how long?

The key appears to be to do an exercise that you enjoy rather than following one particular exercise. Research has not shown one particular exercise to be far superior than all others in producing serotonin.

It is thought that to get major benefit you should be able to continue the exercise for at least 20-30 minutes. This might mean that walking would be a more beneficial exercise than running for many people.

If you start to include weekly exercise into your lifestyle, then you can be sure that you are doing something wonderful for both your physical and mental health and well-being.

Perhaps you might be interested in reading other articles from my mini-blog series;

The Bank of Willpower

Help! Why do I procrastinate?