Magazines, TV and even your high school P.E teachers all tell you that regular exercise is good for the body and the mind. There are the obvious physical benefits of exercise like a gain in muscle mass, weight loss, increased stamina and breathing capacity which are all super valuable for adding more years to your life. But how does exercise benefit the mind and your general well-being exactly? In the UK alone there has been a significant rise in mental health cases reported, with the most common problem being a mixture of depression and anxiety. This affects 9.7% of the UK population which is quite a big number when you consider the population of the UK is approximately 64 million. So how does exercise help with these serious mental health issues? And could it be a natural alternative to medication? We hear the term "oh, it's the endorphins" get thrown around as a very ambiguous answer, but what does that even mean? I wanted to find out just how exercise can be good for our mental health, and this is what I found out...
As you move your body and start getting the blood flowing quicker, your heart rate increases which triggers the brain to enter "Fight or Flight" mode. The reason your brain does this is because exercise puts your body under stress which makes you release cortisol, the stress hormone. Adrenaline is a hormone, which is secreted by the adrenal gland, that is responsible for increased breathing, blood circulation and prepares your body for action. At this point, your brain naturally tries to protect your body and to do this it releases a surge of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). This protein is key for the maintenance and regeneration of nerve cells and memory neurons which is why we often feel a sense of clarity post work out, it's because these memory neurons effectively "reset".
So where do these famous "endorphins" come into it? Consider these guys as your own personal brain stash of narcotics. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the spinal cord, and they are considered to be messengers between neurons. They are released under certain stimuli like stress, pain and fear... the same things your body goes through when exercising. In these circumstances, your brain releases endorphins to alter the chemical messages between neurons that results in a decrease in pain, discomfort and even provides a state of euphoria.
To summarise then: when we exercise we're putting our body under stress which causes a surge in the adrenaline hormone that increases our blood flow and heart rate. The brain tries to protect itself from this stress by releasing BDNF and endorphins. Between these two happy chemicals, they suppress pain receptors and help regenerate nerve cells and memory synapses. These two key chemicals are why we feel clear minded and euphoric after working out and help us deal with the pain and strain of our muscles, and this is why exercise can be addictive!
Earlier I touched upon mental health, specifically depression and anxiety and I wanted to bring this into the article because it's become a very serious and a rapidly growing condition. There are a lot of natural things you can do you to help relieve symptoms: like implementing a better sleep routine, better diet, socialising and of course... exercise!
I mentioned earlier on that the stress hormone is known as cortisol. Despite being known as the stress hormone, cortisol also has some awesome benefits, one being that it is a strong natural anti-inflammatory. This is where Cortisone is derived from. However, the negative effects of cortisol strongly outweigh the positive ones. This hormone can cause the body to be more susceptible to illness and inhibit other chemicals being released into the body, one of these is being gonadotropins (sex hormones) and this is why people under a lot of stress can have a reduced libido. Stress is usually the trigger for both anxiety and depression and symptoms can manifest themselves in a plethora of forms. This article isn't to delve into those avenues, but to stay focused on the benefits of exercise. Studies have proven that an increase in BDNF, neuron growth and regeneration, significantly reduces levels of cortisol in the body, and although it sounds a little strange, putting your body under physical stress helps relieve mental stress!
If you're still not convinced that regular exercise is good for your whole well-being, then here's a whole list:
Happy Chemicals = Happy people!
Regular exercise produces adrenaline, dopamine, BDNF and endorphins. All these happy chemicals are key for reducing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol and help with the growth and regeneration of brain cells.
Even when it's wet and muddy and when your muscles can't even be bothered to get you out the front door... that is the BEST time to get out and ride it off! A burst of energy, happy chemicals and the satisfaction of giving those negativities the middle finger. It feels really good.
Whether you gain confidence from learning a new trick, or beating your personal best time, nothing feels better than improvement and it makes you feel really good to get better at something you work really hard for.
The same euphoric feeling can be attributed for those with weight loss and muscle gain goals! Seeing your body transform through exercise is another worthwhile reward. I know I'm a lot happier with my buns!
Regular exercise has been known to help overcome insomnia and improve your quality of sleep. Getting the blood pumping through the body and exerting your muscles is strenuous and tiring, and your body needs sleep to help repair and rebuild muscles after a work out.
Being sociable is part of human nature and whether you're a lone ranger who likes to exercise with your own thoughts, or not. Meeting new people and having regular sociable interaction does wonders for your mental health because it acts as a distraction from your own thoughts, allows opportunity to learn from others... even if it's just a new trick, recipe or even relaxation methods. Being sociable with people who share a common passion is brilliant and it's a great way to build lasting friendships. Having the Velo Vie Ladies on rides is always fun and sociable and I'm fortunate to have them there, always ready to ride somewhere. Especially with biking, be safe and ride in numbers!
So there we have it! There are many reasons why regular exercise is good for our mind and body, and it's important to take care of our mental health just as much as our physical health. So get outside, get on the bike, grab unwilling friends and feel good!