We know that exercise is great for our physical health, and most of you probably know about exercise's effect as an excellent stress-reliever: there are whole reams of anecdotal evidence available, full of people telling us running, hiking, weightlifting or other sports are good for the soul.
However, thanks to modern science, we can prove exercise is good for the... well, not the soul, exactly, but the brain. From a biological standpoint, regular exercise helps keep our brains in working order, fighting mental health problems and having a therapeutic affect.
In one literature review, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry (opens in new tab), these therapeutic benefits of exercise were thought to be caused by "exercise-induced increase in blood circulation to the brain.". It's thought this increased circulation stimulates the brain; specifically, the part of the brain which controls reactions to stress.
This section of brain, known as the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, is also said to regulate processes such as digestion, our sex drives, the immune system, mood and emotions. Exercise literally kills stress by stimulating the part of your brain which controls your reaction to stressful situations.
If that wasn't enough, exercise has also been found (opens in new tab) to release mood-boosting chemicals in your brain called serotonin, noroadrenaline and dopamine. These are responsible for the fabled "runner's high" some athletes report getting deep into their exercise session.
Of course, our brains affect our body, too, which is one reason why people say gut health directly correspond to mental health. By affecting the brain, exercise also has a positive effect on the rest of the body, unrelated to weight loss or building muscle. According to the Clinical Psychiatry Study, these positive effects include:
- Health benefits from regular exercise that should be emphasized and reinforced by every mental health professional to their patients include the following:
- Improved sleep
- Increased interest in sex
- Stress relief
- Improvement in mood
- Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
Of course, these effects also include reduced cholesterol improved heart health and all the usual benefits of exercise. But if you're struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression or a general low mood, lacing up your trainers has a preventative effect.
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Matt Evans is an experienced health and fitness journalist and News Editor at Fit&Well, covering all things exercise and nutrition on the Fit&Well website. Matt originally discovered exercise through martial arts: he holds a black belt in Karate and remains a keen runner, gym-goer, and infrequent yogi. His top fitness tip? Stretch.
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