There was a time where people engaged in exercise purely for the physical rewards. These days, most of our members equally value the ‘feel good’ effect of a gym workout, and rightly so. There is a strong body of evidence linking regular physical activity with improved mood, productivity and sleep quality, and reduced risk of anxiety and depression.
With ‘R U OK’ day occurring the month of September (Thursday 12th), we’re thinking about the many ways exercise can be used to promote our emotional wellbeing, and protect our mental health. We’d like to share our findings with you!
If you engage in moderate-high intensity exercise, especially cardio, you’ve probably experienced that amazing post-workout sensation – a rush of energy, satisfaction and happiness, otherwise known as ‘runners high’? Well, there is a chemical explanation for it – exercise stimulates the release of brain chemicals including serotonin, endorphins, dopamine and noradrenaline, which all play a role in lifting your mood.
On the flip side, most mood disorders can be traced back to an ‘imbalance’ in your brain chemistry. For example, low levels of serotonin and dopamine are commonly linked with anxiety, depression and insomnia (1). This is why exercise is commonly prescribed as one of many tools to assist with protecting and improving mental health.
Do you feel groggy first thing in the morning, yet after a morning run, feel sharp as a knife? Exercise can improve many aspects of brain function, including alertness and clarity, by stimulating blood flow, oxygen and nutrients to the brain.
Furthermore, exercise can influence and ‘grow’ parts of the brain associated with learning, critical thinking and memory (2). One particular study involving middle-aged adults showed that the volume of the hippocampus – responsible for learning and memory – increased significantly after only 6 weeks of exercise, and shrank back to baseline when exercise ceased (3).
A brain that functions better can certainly offer benefits for mental health, by helping you to achieve what’s needed each day, and to tackle life’s challenges big and small.
With the right approach, exercise can do wonders or boosting your self-confidence and self-worth. For example, it creates opportunities for setting and reaching goals, such as completing your first fun run, or mastering a new yoga pose. Body image plays a strong role, so improving your stamina, fitness, strength and muscle tone can improve the way you feel about yourself. You may even notice your complexion start to improve!
In today’s ‘busy-obsessed’ world, taking regular ‘metal breaks’ can protect you from stress, and can be crucial for your wellbeing. Like meditation, exercise presents an opportunity to direct your focus towards breathing, technique and physical effort, and away the daily grind. If you need a little help with redirecting your thoughts, listening to something whilst you exercise might do the trick. We personally love listening to engaging content, such as an audiobook or podcast.
For exercise to have a meaningful impact on your mental health, you need to practice consistently. Australia’s Physical Activity and Sedentary Behaviour Guidelines recommend 1.5 – 3 hours of exercise per week, which can be split as three to six days per week of 30 - 45minute workouts.
However, it’s not a case of ‘the more the merrier’. High intensity exercise can stimulate the release of cortisol, a stress hormone linked with everything we are trying to avoid – think elevated heart rate and blood pressure, anxiety, impaired digestion, acne and even infertility. According to experts, once-a-day exercise or less should not cause the chronically elevated cortisol levels linked with these consequences. However, long duration or twice-daily high-intensity workouts may (4).
Furthermore, if at any point you feel that exercise is becoming a tool for ‘punishment’ or ‘body hatred’, especially with regards to weight loss, it’s important to find support.
If you are currently experiencing low mood, we suggest you speak with your GP or health professional about exercise and other strategies to support you.