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The relationship between exercise and mental health
January 6, 2017
Many people are familiar with the physiological benefits that come with exercise. As people look for a more holistic approach to their health and well-being we are learning more about the psychological benefits too.
With the World Health Organisation predicting that depression will be the second biggest cause of death by the year 2020, why are more people turning to exercise to help improve their mental health? Below is a brief summary of a few hypotheses that may help answer this question:
Many people are familiar with the concept of the ‘runner’s high’. This refers to the feeling of euphoria that is produced by endorphins following a stint of exercise. These endorphins are thought to help reduce levels of anxiety, depression and low moods. The chemical structure of these endorphins mimics that of morphine and helps regulate emotion and perceive pain.
It has been discovered that certain parts of the brain form systems that are linked to various mental processes such as anxiety, depression, pleasure and pain. Improved moods following exercise could be explained by the changes in one or more of our neurotransmitters (e.g. serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrene) that help transfer signals across our brain.
For centuries people have been using the idea of raising one’s body temperature to improve their health. Recent studies have shown that our body reacts to exercise in the same way it does to a virus or bacteria. Just as an adjustment to the elements in our blood raises body temperature to kill of any virus, exercise raises body temperature and leads to a relaxing effect as muscle tension is reduced.
A more psychological explanation revolves around taking ourselves out of the firing line of any stressful situations. By applying our mind to something that is not causing us anxiety or stress we can help improve our state of mental health. Exercise could be one of these options however more evidence is needed to determine if it is the most effective tool.
It is likely that a combination of all these theories lead to the positive mood we experience after exercise. If you are struggling for motivation then sometimes understanding why exercise can help improve your mood can be the encouragement you need to get you back on track.