The Proven Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health

In the fitness spotlight, you’ll find the goals of weight loss, muscle growth, and improved performance. While daily exercise does a body good, it’s also essential for your brain and mental health.

Let’s take a look at the benefits of exercise for mental health along with how much exercise you need for optimal results.

Exercise May Reduce Daily Stress

Stress is like the sun: You know it’s going to come up again soon.

Thankfully, studies show that regular exercise makes you more resilient to both physical and emotional stressors.

Heart rate is a key indicator of the body’s response to stress. One study found that after dealing with a stressful task, regular exercisers had a significantly lower heart rate compared to sedentary participants. What’s more, the exercisers were able to maintain a positive emotional effect after stressful tasks.

The takeaway from this study is that exercise may protect you from illnesses and diseases related to chronic stress.

Exercise Can Alleviate ADHD Symptoms

While Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is often associated with children and adolescents, it can still be prevalent and problematic in adults as well.

Research shows that individuals with ADHD have lower levels of dopamine, a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for regulating your emotional responses.

When someone is prescribed a stimulant-based medication like Adderall, levels of dopamine increase, and the person can focus and regulate their impulsivity.

Exercise has been shown to have the same effect on dopamine levels. What’s more, acute exercise can improve the way that your brain uses dopamine.

Research shows that exercising before a task improves inhibition, cognitive flexibility, and executive control in subjects with ADHD.

Physical Fitness May Reduce Anxiety

What does anxiety have in common with stress and ADHD? If you have one, there’s a good chance that you have the other.

Like ADHD, many people are turning to prescription medication for their anxiety. This comes with the risk of developing a dependence or going through withdraw if the medication is not taken.

By dulling the effect of emotional stressors while increasing levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, regular exercise has been shown to successfully reduce anxiety.

Experts Suggest Exercise for Depression

Depression is the leading emotional disability affecting almost 10% of the population in the U.S.

Studies show that many people with depression have significantly low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that is responsible for emotional processing.

Tryptophan is an amino acid that is the precursor to serotonin. However, tryptophan has to compete with other amino acids in order to cross the blood-brain barrier where it is converted into serotonin.

Regular exercise increases the production and availability of serotonin by reducing the impact of competitive amino acids, making it an effective and natural way to alleviate the symptoms of depression.

How Much Should You Exercise for Mental Health?

The Center for Disease Control recommends the following for weekly exercise:

  • 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity physical activity

or

  • 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity physical activity

or

  • A combination of both moderate and high-intensity physical activity

However, many studies seemed to agree that when it comes to mental health benefits, the intensity and physique-focused results aren’t as important as overall frequency.

In other words, engage in physical activity more often regardless of how hard you push yourself.

For example, it would be better to go for a walk for one hour every day than to have a highly regimented workout program with varying intensities. This ensures consistency without the added pressure of finding the “perfect workout.”

With that said, when you’re ready, it would be ideal to combine BOTH strength training with physical activities like walking, jogging, or cycling.


References

Childs E, de Wit H. Regular exercise is associated with emotional resilience to acute stress in healthy adults. Front Physiol. 2014;5:161. Published 2014 May 1. doi:10.3389/fphys.2014.00161.

Fusar-Poli P, Rubia K, Rossi G, Sartori G, Balottin U. Striatal dopamine transporter alterations in ADHD: pathophysiology or adaptation to psychostimulants? A meta-analysis. Am J Psychiatry. 2012 Mar;169(3):264-72. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2011.11060940. PMID: 22294258.

Basso JC, Suzuki WA. The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review. Brain Plast. 2017;2(2):127-152. Published 2017 Mar 28. doi:10.3233/BPL-160040.

Hillman CH, Pontifex MB, Castelli DM, Khan NA, Raine LB, Scudder MR, Drollette ES, Moore RD, Wu CT, Kamijo K. Effects of the FITKids randomized controlled trial on executive control and brain function. Pediatrics. 2014 Oct;134(4):e1063-71. doi: 10.1542/peds.2013-3219. PMID: 25266425; PMCID: PMC4179093.

Stonerock GL, Hoffman BM, Smith PJ, Blumenthal JA. Exercise as Treatment for Anxiety: Systematic Review and Analysis. Ann Behav Med. 2015;49(4):542-556. doi:10.1007/s12160-014-9685-9.

Craft LL, Perna FM. The Benefits of Exercise for the Clinically Depressed. Prim Care Companion J Clin Psychiatry. 2004;6(3):104-111. doi:10.4088/pcc.v06n0301.

David Sautter


Mind & Body Uncategorized
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