The Impact of Exercise on our Mental Health
Have you ever gone for a walk to clear your head or to calm your nerves? If you have, then you know it works. Exercise can impact our mental and emotional health. Many times, we often refer to exercise in the context of losing weight, but physical activity not only has physical benefits but also mental rewards, especially when it comes to dealing with stress as human beings. Stress is a part of life, and exercise helps us cope with it more effectively. Exercise is medicine for the body because of its ability to impact the central nervous system, which plays an important role in our mental health.
Impact of moderate exercise on mental health
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “mental health is an important part of overall health and well-being. Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make healthy choices.” Mental health is about our readiness to handle stress and to adapt to life’s changes.
Researchers have found that an exercise program consisting of jogging or moderate walking can help to promote positive mental health. Specifically, researchers Silverman and Deuster report that “several meta-analyses and reviews have shown that physical fitness and regular exercise buffer against behavioural stress disorder, such as depression….”
Exercise, when executed correctly, can be seen by the body as a positive stressor. For not all stresses are bad, and not everyone perceives stressors in the same way. Normally, when the body perceives a stressor negatively, the body’s fight or flight response is activated. A chemical chain of cascading events and nervous system changes are unleashed in the body.
The hypothalamus, a small area of the brain, is activated. The hypothalamus causes a number of physiological changes involving the autonomic nervous system (nervous system) and three pathways or routes used when the stress has been assessed by the body. These pathways are the neuro pathway (sympathetic nervous system), the neuroendocrine pathway and the endocrine pathway (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal or HPA) Kotecki, author of Physical Activity and Health: An interactive Approach explains.
These pathways are involved in the release of chemical hormones in response to a stressor perceived as a threat. These chemical hormones can wreak physiological and psychological havoc. Silverman and Deuster list some of their effects as depression, metabolic dysregulation, immune dysfunction or inflammation, which can lead to chronic diseases.
However, in the case of exercise—the stressor—is seen as “stress training” or “toughening,” note Silverman and Duester. So, in life when you begin to feel and become aware of muscle tension, increased heart rate or respiratory breathing as you do in exercising, this awareness allows you to change your response because you control what is arising instead of automatically reacting. The emotion anger takes on similar characteristics:
As you become angry your body’s muscles tense up. Inside your brain, neurotransmitter chemicals known as catecholamines are released causing you to experience a burst of energy lasting up to several minutes. This burst of energy is behind the common angry desire to take immediate protective action. At the same time your heart rate accelerates, your blood pressure rises, and your rate of breathing increases. Your face may flush as increased blood flow enters your limbs and extremities in preparation for physical action. Your attention narrows and becomes locked onto the target of your anger. Soon you can pay attention to nothing else. In quick succession, additional brain neurotransmitters and hormones [among them epinephrine and norepinephrine] are released which trigger a lasting state of arousal. You’re now ready to fight. (Physiology of Anger. n.d.)
Epinephrine, the “fear hormone” supplies glucose to the muscles. Norepinephrine, the anger hormone speeds up the heart rate and raises blood pressure. Aerobic exercise helps to create a different “set point” or autonomic arousal in life. As you get used to the arousal mimicked by exercise, you are able to change your response, reducing reactivity to the stressors.
Impact of these physical activities on emotional health
Therefore, life calls for paying attention to your emotions and making adjustments when necessary as well. This is emotional health; it “encompasses mental states that include feelings or subjective experiences in response to changes in your environment” Kotecki explains. Whether the emotion is joy, sadness or anger, it impacts our overall health.
Because meditative movements involve paying attention to what is arising in the body in a nonjudgmental way, these forms of exercises increase awareness. This increase of awareness—proprioception (awareness of the position of the body) and interoception (awareness of inner body sensations), allows a normalization in body states and leads to resilience.
Resiliency is the ability to respond, recover and grow in the face of stressors and the changing demands of life.
Both aerobic and meditative movements such as yoga and Qigong affect psychological health by reducing reactivity of the autonomic nervous system to physical and mental stressors.
By reducing reactivity of the autonomic nervous system, it may also potentially reduce proinflammatory factors in the brain which can possibly lead to the development of depression or depression-like behavior, according to Eyre and his colleagues. In other words, as inflammation increases mood worsens, and as inflammation reduces mood returns to normal. Thus, aerobic and mindful exercises can be beneficial to the neuroimmune system and reduce its detrimental effects.
- Keep a stress diary and track your stresses every day. This activity will help you pay attention to what causes your stress.
- Exercise aerobically (swim, walk, dance) for at least 150 minutes a week. Aerobic exercise helps to build resiliency.
- Include meditative movements such as yoga, Qigong or Tai Chi, which help to reduce reactive behavior.
- Aerobic and meditative movements both help to reduce physical and mental stressors.
- Take your meds and take a walk for good mental health hygiene.
Eyre, H. A., Papps, E., & Baune, B. T. (2013). Treating depression and depression-like behavior with physical activity: an immune perspective. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 3. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00003
Kotecki, J.E. (2018). Physical Activity and Health: An interactive Approach. [Kindle]. Fifth edition. Retrieved from Amazon.com.
Mental Health. (2018). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/index.htm
Payne, P., & Crane-Godreau, M. A. (2013). Meditative movement for depression and anxiety. Frontiers in psychiatry, 4, 71. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00071
Physiology of Anger. n.d. Mental Health.Net. Retrieved from https://www.mentalhelp.net/anger/physiology/
Silverman MN, Deuster PA. 2014 Biological mechanisms underlying the role of physical fitness in health and resilience. Interface Focus 4: 20140040.