Exercise 101: It builds muscle, and increases fitness, and can make life a little easier – and not just physically!
It’s well known that exercise and physical activity helps you maintain good physical health. Did you know that exercise is good for your mental health too? Maybe you’ve heard that it’s a primary treatment recommendation for depression, or heard a friend describe getting a mental boost from a workout. Maybe you’ve had the really strong “I FEEL GREAT” feelings after you’re done. But where does that boost come from?
While these “feel-good” feelings are stimulated by exercise, their actual source is in the brain itself. During times of stress, which is how the body perceives exercise, the brain releases endorphins, a type of hormone that we commonly associated with a rush of euphoria. These hormones help block any pain signals that the stress might be causing, as a preventative measure of sorts.
They also make you feel damn good. As above, endorphins create feelings of euphoria – they are chemically similar to morphine! – and can increase positive thoughts and feelings. The “endorphin effect” can be both immediate and (with regular exercise) long-lasting. My first-hand experience with post-workout elation and exhilaration has made me a strong supporter of exercise as a useful element of treatment for depression and anxiety, both of which have popped up in my life. And there’s growing support that exercise can play a role in treatment and prevention of other mental illnesses, including helping to manage physical health challenges that can sometimes occur alongside.
It’s not just about feeling good, though. Long-term mental health can also get a boost from exercise. During times of stress, the brain releases another biochemical protein: brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This protein protects brain cells and their connections with each other, called synapses, which in turn helps improve brain cell signaling and can reverse cell damage. Improved connections between brain circuits mean improved memory, attention span, and processing speed. In some studies, increased levels of BDNF have actually been shown to have a reparative effect, and may eventually help us restore learning abilities and memory. Even low-key or modest levels of exercise, like going for a walk every day, have been show to produce BDNF-related improvements.
The protective effects of BDNF extend throughout life. Many studies of brain health in older adults have shown that people who were more physically active earlier in life were less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. In the early stages of these diseases, people can also benefit from exercise: the aforementioned walk can help prevent disease progression. We tend to produce less BDNF as we age. Given the benefits, it makes sense to get moving regardless of current age or mental health.
Biochemicals aside, exercise actually benefits the brain in some of the same ways that it benefits the rest of our body. The blood vessels in our brains are very small, but still susceptible to the same types of damage as any of our other blood vessels. A stroke is one of the most common types of cardiovascular disease, and is the brain equivalent of a heart attack. While large strokes are usually quickly noticeable, small ones may occur without your knowledge. Tiny blockages leading to potentially unnoticeable mini-strokes can damage small areas of the brain and may lead to long-term mental health decline. You can vastly decrease your risks though: Your brain’s blood vessels are positively affected by exercise – the same way as the rest of your blood vessels throughout your body. Good blood vessel health (also called vascular health) also means optimal blood flow to the brain, and with it, optimal delivery of nutrients and oxygen. Sounds like a good idea to keep those channels open!