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The Exercise and Mental Health Connection


The Exercise and Mental Health Connection

By: Stephanie Ruopp

Many of us exercise because we know the importance of keeping our bodies fit and functioning at optimal levels.

But are you aware of the exercise and mental health connection?

It turns out that exercise is crucial for mental health too. So while exercise can help prevent and improve conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes and arthritis, it also provides psychological benefits that can help improve mood and reduce anxiety.

What Is the Exercise and Mental Health Connection?

When you go to the gym to lift weights or take a Pilates class to strengthen and tone muscles, working out your brain is probably not your top priority. Even so, that’s exactly what you’re doing.

Exercise works on the brain in similar ways to antidepressants. It boosts the levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain, leading to an improved mood. Pair this with the release of endorphins – which are nothing more than naturally-occurring opioids the body creates – and it’s no wonder you feel lifted after physical activity.

In addition, being active subdues responses for the “fight or flight” sympathetic nervous system, as well as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the hormonal feedback system that responds to stress.

If that weren’t enough, recent studies show that cardiovascular exercise creates new brain cells. Known as neurogenesis, this process can help to prevent memory loss by strengthening the hippocampus. 

And all of those brain-boosting benefits extend out to other aspects of your life too, including:  

1. Increasing Confidence and Self-Esteem

Regular exercise is a proven way to help you increase muscle tone, build endurance, and lose weight. All of these achievements can add up to a serious boost in confidence and self-esteem. This is especially true when you begin to notice you’re fitting into clothes better or are able to climb that next flight of stairs without getting too winded.

Then there’s the social aspect that comes with exercise and physical activity. For those struggling with depression and anxiety, it’s all too easy to close off and isolate. This only further exacerbates the condition. But when you regularly exercise, you establish new friendships and bonds within that exercise community.

Even just a smile or a friendly hello can be enough to boost your mood. 

2. Lowering Stress

Chronic stress can damage the brain. Increasing the heart rate can actually reverse some of that damage.

When you’re involved in activity, the body produces neurohormones that improve thinking and mood. These also aid in keeping a clear mind during stressful events. 

Exercise also requires the body’s above mentioned sympathetic nervous system to communicate with the central nervous system in a more effective way. This improves your body’s ability to react to stress.

3. Promoting Improved Sleep

You likely know the importance of sleep. 

But if you tend to have trouble turning in at night, or you toss and turn and can’t seem to go back to sleep once you do, partaking in physical activity can help with that too. 

That’s because exercising increases the body’s temperature which can have a calming effect on the mind. Physical activity also helps to regulate your natural sleep and wake cycles so you can become more attuned with the different times thought the day when you’re more tired or alert. This leads to more improved productivity.

Of course, as much as exercise helps with sleep, an intense workout right before attempting to go to sleep is usually counterintuitive. 

4. Tackling Anxiety

Researchers continue to explore exercise as a tool for treating and possibly preventing anxiety. 

People with a heightened sensitivity to anxiety will become fearful when they experience the dizziness, sweating and racing heart that often occur when frightened. These same folks are also more likely to develop panic disorders later.

So two researchers reasoned that since regular workouts create some of those same sensations, people who are prone to anxiety would become less likely to panic when they experience those feelings if they start to regularly exercise.

They tested their theory among 60 volunteers with heightened sensitivity to anxiety and published their findings in a 2008 Depression and Anxiety article. Those who took part in a two-week exercise program experienced marked improvements in anxiety sensitivity. It was similar to exposure treatment in that the subjects learned to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.

In another study, volunteers with varying levels of anxiety sensitivity were asked to breathe CO2-enriched air. Since the test often triggers those same unsettling sensations, it came as no surprise that those with high anxiety sensitivity were more likely to panic. Yet, people with high anxiety sensitivity who were also highly active were less likely to panic – suggesting that physical exercise could help to ward off panic attacks.

How Much Exercise Do You Need?

As with everything, it’s hard to exactly quantify the right amount. In the case of the exercise and mental health connection though, it seems that less is more.

While working out every day might be the ticket to building more muscle mass, it seems that people who work out for around 45 minutes just three to five times per week seem to have the best mental health outcomes from exercise. 

And there’s definitely such a thing as too much. Researchers found that people who exercise for more than three hours at a time report worse mental health than those who don’t exercise at all.

So as with everything, it’s important to honor your limits.

Improve Your Mental Health With Pilates and GYROTONIC®

The exercise and mental health connection is pretty compelling. So why not see for yourself how having a regular exercise regimen can boost your brain power and improve your life?

Contact us to find out the many ways our Pilates and GYROTONIC® classes can help make for a healthier and happier you. 

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