• Stephen Baines

Exercise and Mental Health: Are There Connections?

We all know that exercise promotes a healthier body and a better sense of well-being. It boosts confidence whilst somewhat preventing the aggravation of physical illnesses for some. While nearly all of the research on exercise is focused on demonstrating positive effects on the physical body, there is a growing mass of research that seeks to prove that exercise is good for mental health as well. A body of research I have my own strong experiences on too

A study conducted by the researchers from Duke University along with other similar studies proved that exercise could help treat depression for 60% of all the participants. Remarkably, this result is similar to those who are using medications to treat the same mental illness. 

However, you do not have to be a sufferer of a mental illness before you benefit from exercise. You can boost your sense of well-being while walking on the treadmill or by combining yoga and meditation. In a way, exercise could be used as a potential medium for preventing the development of psychological and emotional conditions. All whilst boosting your physical wellbeing too.

There are three dimensions at which we could look at when examining the benefits of exercise in the mental wellness of a person. Among the less well known is the biological aspect.

One theory suggests that physical workout or exercise could stimulate a part of the brain to release endorphins. Activities that are more likely to trigger the release of endorphins are swimming, cross-country skiing, running, bicycling, aerobics, and sports like soccer, football, and basketball.

Endorphins are comparable to opiates in a way that they resemble morphine. Endorphins could work in two ways. The first is as a pain reliever, produced in response to stresses brought about by physical work or stress. Exercise essentially acts an enhancer of well-being. It must be said though that there is no definitive data that could support this claim.

The second is how exercise has been found to to trigger the release of hormones norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. These are known to help improve mood and is actually the main effect of Prozac, a well-known antidepressant. 

An increase in these hormones could be best observed in a condition known as "runner's high". This feeling after an acute exercise is directly linked to the increased number of the said hormones. However, there are still no conclusive studies proving that improvements in mood could be facilitated for a longer period of time.

Endorphins aside, we must consider the physiological aspect. Nearly all of the feelings we associate with mental wellness come from our personal evaluation of the way our body feels. Say, for instance, if you perceive stomach pain as a form of stress then you will feel stressed (and sometimes even depression) every time your stomach aches. Likewise, exercise could render feelings such as muscle relaxation and easier breathing which we associate with "feeling better". While this correlation is yet to have a better scientific grounding, we still could not deny the fact that muscle tension and increased blood flow go together with physical fitness.

No one knows yet how exactly exercise affects mental health. But it is common among patients to view exercise as a good medium to elevate their moods. In fact, according to a survey conducted by the Charity Mind nearly two-thirds of all people who said that they use exercise to relieve symptoms of stress and depression believe that exercise actually works for them. The scientific community is yet to understand how this happens though and for now, it remains a truth that people benefit from exercise for mental health. 

Personally, I share a lot of content on this topic. I find exercise as a great way to balance my mental and physical wellness. I find my running and cycling work incredibly well alongside my mindfulness work

Here are some tools to help you with both:

(1) FREE Month of Waking Up App: I am a massive fan of the Sam Harris Waking Up App. It has quickly become my go-to meditation App. As an offer, I am fortunate to be able to gift you 1 month of usage on the App to give it a go. Sign-up here (Note that I get no commission from this)

(2) Introduction to Mindfulness Course: The Tranquil Led website was launched recently alongside the first part of a journey on discovering a sense of purpose. Check the website below

Interested in hearing more about this and related topics? Follow me on LinkedIn, Twitter (@_Baines & @BeTranquilLed), and Instagram (@BeTranquilLed) where I regularly post insights relating to Health, Wellness, Mindfulness, Leadership & Innovation. Note that all views are my own

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