While the physical benefits of exercise are well known, the mental and psychological benefits of working out can be just as powerful. Not only does regular physical activity make your brain work better, it also makes you feel better and reduces your chance of developing mental illness. Consistency is key when it comes to physical exercise, with people likely to experience additional benefits if they start exercising at a young age.
We have known for years just how powerful physical exercise can be in terms of brain function. A protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) is released with exercise, with aerobic activity found to stimulate neurogenesis by helping the brain grow new neurons over time. By pumping extra blood to the brain, exercise produces more BDNF and makes us think more clearly. Regular physical movement has also been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus and increase connections between nerve cells, leading to a better memory and more protection against brain disease.
In more recent times, scientists have discovered a specific exercise hormone called Irisin that has been linked to both physical health and cognitive function. While information regarding the best type, intensity, and duration of physical activity is limited, we do know that consistency makes a big difference. Both aerobic and resistance exercise may be effective in improving brain function, with a minimum of three 30-minute exercise sessions per week for a minimum of 8 weeks recommended. While higher doses of exercise are probably more effective, people often struggle sticking to routines when they're too demanding.
Regular physical exercise has also been shown to improve mental health; helping you sleep, making you feel better, and decreasing the risk of depression and anxiety disorders. While regular workouts can help prevent or manage mild depression, however, the "complex and bidirectional" relationship between exercise and mental health is not necessarily positive. According to Professor Tony Jorm from the Centre for Mental Health at the University of Melbourne, "When people get a problem like depression or severe mental illness, it affects their motivation and enjoyment of life, and that can drive physical activity down. But there's also probably a reciprocal effect, in that when they exercise less, that seems to make [their mental health] matters worse."
According to Dr Nicola Burton, senior research fellow in the University of Queensland's school of human movement studies, exercise is also a great way to improve general mood: "We've just done a study showing people who engage in regular exercise experience higher levels of optimism," with people who exercise also likely to experience better powers of concentration and alertness. A 2011 Dutch study also discovered links between physical and mental health, with exercise found to reduce the risk of developing mood and anxiety disorders over a three year period.
Enjoyable and social exercise activities are often recommended for people with mental health issues, including group fitness classes and the use of personal trainers. It's also important to make a detailed yet flexible plan if you want to stick to a fitness routine. By starting small and building gradually over time, you can gain the self-confidence and motivation you need to get fitter, stronger, happier, and more productive.Image source: Sorapop Udomsri / Shutterstock