8 Ways that Exercise Can Boost Mood and Brain Power

I, for a fact, know that exercise can boost mood and brain power which in turn improves my mental health. There’s no question about it. And plenty of friends and family around me agree. In fact, it’s the main reason I exercise to be honest – so it’s not so much for the health of my body (I’m one of those people that doesn’t worry about ageing too much), it’s really to have and keep a healthy mind. Put simply, if you’re vulnerable to depression or seasonal affective disorder, exercise is a must for your toolkit. And even if you don’t struggle with those issues, hitting the gym can still give you positive effects that are well worth it.

Our bodies were made for movement. Getting out for a walk, swim, cycle or any type of physical activity if you’re having a bad day can reduce your stress levels. Exercise stimulates the release of feel good chemicals (endorphins) in the brain which improves your self-confidence and promote a positive self-image. Regardless of age, gender, size and weight exercise can elevate a person’s perception of his or her attractiveness and self-esteem.

Here’s a round-up of the mental health benefits of regular exercise if you still need convincing (and please don’t forget the major physical benefits such as weight control, a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and even cancer, as well as stronger bones and increased flexibility – never mind research proving it leads to a longer life!). 

1. Helps reduce negative moods and improves decision-making
Exercise activates a part of your brain called the ventral prefrontal cortex (PFC), which is important for decision-making and emotional processing. An activated or strong PFC means you’ll be able to regulate emotions better as the PFC is the feel-good centre of the brain.

2. Helps you deal with stress better
Frequent exercise actually alters a part of your brain called the dorsal raphe nucleus. This part of the brain is responsible for mood regulation (via one of the neurotransmitters it produces, called serotonin) and for alerting you to the presence of stress in your environment (via another neurotransmitter). Exercise simultaneusly reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones, such as adrenaline andcortisol.

3. Helps reduce tension and anxiety 
Exercise increases your serotonin level (that’s the well known ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter), which helps decrease negative emotions and increase positive ones. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators.

4. Improves memory 
Exercise increases the activity level in part of your brain called the hippocampus, which plays a key role in helping you form new memories and retrieve old ones. And we all know how good happy memories make us feel!

5. Improves cognitive performance 
Research suggests that even short bouts of intensive exercise during your day can increase performance and productivity. When you exercise, you are also increasing blood flow to the brain, which can help sharpen your awareness and make you more ready to tackle your next big project. Exercise can also give you more energy.

6. Increases body satisfaction & self-image
People who exercise usually report increased body satisfaction immediately following exercise. Those who work out generally report lower levels of body dissatisfaction compared with infrequent exercisers. Seeing and feeling your body being more toned and fit can help improve self-confidence and wellbeing.

7. People who exercise report having better romantic relationships 
Researchers aren’t sure of the reason. It could be that exercise helps boost self-image and body confidence. It could be that your good mood helps smooth over any disagreements between you. It could be that it improves your sex life (regular exercisers report greater desire, arousal and satisfaction than in those who are sedentary and strength training boosts testosterone, and thereby sex drive in both men and women). Also, partners who exercise together report having a stronger bond and feeling more emotionally attuned to one another.

8. It can predict happiness
One recent research review shows that even small amounts of exercise can have this effect on happiness. The type of exercise and amount is not as important as we used to think. In fact, people who worked out only once or twice a week said they felt much happier than those who never exercised. In other studies, even 10 minutes a day of physical activity was linked with buoyant moods. But more movement generally contributed to greater happiness. If people exercised for at least 30 minutes on most days, which is the standard American and European recommendation for good health, they were about 30 per cent more likely to consider themselves happy than people who did not meet the guidelines.

As Good as Anti-Depressants?

In clinical studies, regular aerobic exercise is as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of mild to moderate depression. Exercise actually causes the same structural changes to the brain as antidepressants—neuroplasticity, or creating new neural pathways, and a growth in the hippocampus, a part of the brain that’s generally shrunken in people with depression.

In fact, this is not just in relation to aerobic exercise, or ‘cardio’. One recent study with scientists from Universities of Limerick, Iowa and Stockholm measuring the effects of resistance training on people with depression has revealed that activities such as weightlifting result in significant improvements in depressive symptoms. A review of 33 clinical trials, comprising a total of 1,877 participants, found that – when compared to non-active control conditions – resistance training was comparable in effect to antidepressants, yet we know it is free from the negative side effects and high costs of many medications and therapies.

If we know that exercise can boost mood and brain power, then why isn’t exercise recommended as a first step in treating anxiety and/or depression? And why are antidepressants so widely prescribed as the main form of treatment? Some experts believe it’s our sedentary culture – in other words, that medical professionals have little hope of seeing their patients exercise, so they reach out for the prescription pad. Add to that the fact that many of our GPs don’t receive adequate training in the benefits of exercise during their studies, and we have a recipe for a pill-popping approach to mental health. Part of the problem is a lack of adequate research – researchers don’t yet have a handle on which types of exercise are most effective, how much is necessary, or even whether exercise works best in conjunction with other therapies or on its own.

Read more here from Professor Ivor Browne, a leading Irish psychiatrist who is opposed to antidepressants *

Pssst…Don’t Forget CBT!
Research has proven time and again that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an effective intervention for treating anxiety and depression. Simply put, what CBT tells us is that we can change the way we think through repeated exposures to thinking healthy thoughts, avoidance of unhealthy thoughts, and engagement in healthy behaviours. This, combined with regular exercise, can be extremely effective.

* Please consult a medical profession before altering dose of antidepressant medications, particularly for serious depression or anxiety. Under no circumstance do we recommend that individuals stop taking their antidepressants. We are merely adding to the debate about the possibility of alternative solutions to depression, without giving prescriptive advice. Anyone experiencing depression or anxiety should consult a health professional for individual advice.

Blog Post by Maebh Coyle