Healthy body, healthy mind
We’ve all heard the phrase and most likely dismissed it as nothing more than a cliche. But studies are mounting that show the direct benefits of exercise on mental health. Whilst the benefits of exercise on physical health are obvious to most of us, the benefits on mental health go almost unrecognised.
Firstly, there are the short-term chemical repercussions of exercise experienced by the body. Let’s start with endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters – chemicals that pass signals through your body. They act as your body’s own private narcotic, responsible for pleasure and lifting your mood. Endorphins reward you and encourage you to go after that good thing again. This means that not only does exercise make you happy, it encourages you to exercise more and chase those happy feelings!
Exercise may also lead to increased levels of norepinephrine – a chemical linked to the body’s response to stress. Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and plays a role in a person’s mood and ability to concentrate. Conditions such as ADHD and depression have been linked to low levels of norepinephrine. So, frequent exercise could lead to increased concentration levels.
The psychological benefits of exercise can also be felt on a long-term basis. For example, regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic. Exercise and panic produce similar physical reactions such as heavy perspiration and increased heart rate. Thus regular exercise can act almost like exposure treatment; by regularly experiencing these physical reactions in a positive environment, anxiety sufferers are able to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.
A good workout can also boost your brain and memory. Regular exercise can create new brain cells and boost levels of the brain-derived protein BDNF (which is believed to be linked to decision making and learning). It also increases cell production in the hippocampus – the part of the brain responsible for memory.
Finally, exercise is great for generating a feeling of accomplishment and boosting self-esteem. Following a workout program provides clear, measurable goals that you can work towards and achieve. More obvious results can be found right before your eyes. Combining exercise and a healthy diet can produce visible physical results, whether you’re chasing a six pack or simply want to shift a little weight for health reasons.
Whilst working out can improve your physical health, it’s important to remember that as with anything in life, moderation is key. Over exercise can lead to injury, pain and time out from the gym, none of which are good for your mood! Your mental wellbeing can also have an impact on your body. I know from experience that at times of stress, areas of tension start appearing in my body. You can almost guarantee that my neck seizes up as I allow the tension in my mind to spread.
When these signs of stress and injury start to appear, it’s wise to take a step back, look at the long term and take a break. It’s also beneficial to enlist the help of a physiotherapist to speed your recovery and get you back to exercise. For me, Hannah Jackson at Physio At Yours was my saviour from neck pain. She identified my problem immediately and helped my recovery with a routine of deep tissue massage (yep, on my neck, no pain no gain!) and stretching. I found myself back in the gym far quicker than had I tried to go it alone.
Exercise is a valuable tool for your physical and mental health, so why not use it?