Exercise and Mental Health

When we think of exercise and health, we often think about just the physical aspects, such as having a strong heart or an attractive and healthy body; but do the impacts of exercise on health and wellness go beyond just the physical and improve our mental state as well? Yes, they absolutely do. 

If you read our previous two blogs on why living a healthy lifestyle is important and how the modern lifestyle is making you unwellyou probably won't be surprised to hear that many of the happiest, healthiest and most successful people have regular practices that include things like exercising regularly, eating healthy foods, meditating and mindfulness.

Are many of the most common mental health issues we are experiencing also lifestyle diseases? Why is it that exercise is so good for the human psyche?

We will try to answer these questions by summarizing information from the books The Story of the Human Body Evolution, Health and Disease and Exercised Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding. They were both written by Daniel Lieberman, a Paleoanthropologist at Harvard University and a leading expert in the field.

Anxiety, Depression, Exercise and the Brain 

    As we have modernized, our levels of physical activity have plummeted and our mental health issues have steadily risen. We all feel anxious or sad sometimes, but this is not to be confused with clinical anxiety and depression, which now impacts 1 in 5 people at some point. Especially alarming is the increasing rate in our youth. One study of almost 80,000 high school students in 2007, found that they were 6-8x more likely to suffer a major mental health disorder than their counterparts in 1938. It was also found that between 2009 and 2017, depression rose by 47% in 12-13 year olds and 60% in those from 14-17 years of age. These are truly alarming statistics for our future generations.

    It has been well documented that exercise is at least, if not more effective than drugs and therapy in treating these conditions. Yet, how and why exercise is so impactful is less well understood. There are many possible reasons, but a likely one is the way exercise affects our brains- exercise releases many mood altering chemicals in the brain naturally. These include the feel good chemicals dopamine and serotonin, as well as norepinephrine. Exercise also increases levels of glutamate and GABA, which are often depleted in those with anxiety and depression.

    Further, exercise turns on naturally occurring endogenous opioids such as endorphins and endocannabinoids, which inhibit pain and produce positive moods. So, all of this amounts to exercise releasing a cocktail of feel good chemicals in the brain. Add this to exercise's ability to lower cortisol (the stress hormone) and it's no wonder exercise makes us feel so good.

    Exercise also helps boost general brain function, improving math and reading ability, improving memory/attention span and it even helps with neural and cognitive disorders like ADHD and Parkinson's.  

    Alzheimer's Disease and Exercise

      While dementia is a general term, Alzheimer's disease is a specific brain disease. It is marked by symptoms of dementia that gradually get worse over time. Alzheimer's disease first affects the part of the brain associated with learning, so early symptoms often include changes in memory, thinking and reasoning skills.

      Although studies of dementia in non-industrial communities are limited, epidemiological studies suggest that Alzheimer's Disease is 20x more common in the industrial world. It is also steadily on the rise, with a projected increase of 400% in the first half of the 21st century. With this kind of steady rise, it is probably not simply genetic, but also lifestyle related. It was traditionally thought that the onset of the disease was caused by plaques and tangles impacting nerve cells near the surface of the brain. However, treating these plaques and tangles does not seem to prevent, nor reverse the disease. Additionally, many people who have these plaques and tangles never develop the disease. Being that the cause of this disease is not very well understood, there are currently no effective drugs to prevent or treat Alzheimer's. However, exercise has proven to be one of the most effective forms of prevention and treatment.

      In sixteen studies that included over 160,000 people, they found that engaging in moderate exercise cut the risk of developing Alzheimer's by 45%. Exercise also slows the rate of cognitive decline in those with Alzheimer's. It is even thought that longer and/or more intense exercise reduces the risk further. They do not know why exercise is so effective, but they think it is because engaging in exercise causes the brain to produce a chemical called BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This chemical seems to help nourish and induce new brain cells, especially in regions that are associated with memory. A study that followed over 2,000 people for decades found that women with the highest levels of BDNF had half the risk of developing Alzheimer's as those with the lowest levels. For this reason, they think that our sedentary lifestyle has lead to lower levels of BDNF and therefore a greater risk of developing Alzheimer's. It is also why it is becoming more prevalent today and was less prevalent in the past when people led more active lives.

      Cardio is seen as the best form of exercise to help prevent this disease, but weights and balance/coordination exercises might also be helpful. 

      Final Thoughts

      The impact movement and exercise have on the brain, mental health and psychological wellness are irrefutable, both anecdotally and scientifically. Movement and exercise are a vital part of any self care regiment and have the ability to touch all aspects, of wellness - physical wellness, emotional wellness, intellectual wellness and even spiritual wellness (just ask anyone with a Yoga practice).

      So, in an effort to help Our Tribe live their best lives, we ask you, how will you move your body today?

      *Exercise, Meditation and Breath techniques can help with positive psychological well-being, but they are not an alternative to treatment with a mental health professionals. Click here for 60 Digital Resources for Mental Health, if you or someone you know is struggling.

      This blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition.