We hear it everywhere; regular exercise is good for the body and the mind. There are the obvious physical benefits of exercise like gaining muscle mass, weight loss and increased stamina which are all valuable in improving the quality of life. But what is the scientific link between exercise and mental health exactly?
In the UK, approximately 16 million people suffer from a type of mental illness, that’s one-quarter of the UK’s population – a pretty significant proportion if you ask me. Mental health is such a broad term and because of that, it’s commonly misunderstood and previously considered a taboo topic. Mental health disorders can range from stress, anxiety and depression to PTSD, OCD, bipolar and personality disorders.
So how can exercise help with these serious mental health issues? And could it be a natural alternative to medication? We hear the term “exercise gives you endorphins” get thrown around as a very ambiguous answer, but what does that even mean? I’m not a healthcare professional and I can only share the information I’ve uncovered and speak from my own personal experiences. For more information on mental health, please consult your doctor or a qualified professional.
As you move your body and start getting the blood flowing quicker, your heart rate increases which trigger the brain to enter a “Fight or Flight” mode. The reason your brain does this is that exercise puts your body under stress which makes you release cortisol, the stress hormone. Another hormone that gets released is adrenaline, 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” themselves.
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 put 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!
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!
Earlier I touched upon mental health, specifically depression and anxiety and I wanted to bring this into the article because it’s something I live with myself and have done so for a number of years now. Before I succumbed to the help of medication, I made a number of permanent lifestyle changes in an attempt to help deal with my dark passenger, one of which, cycling. There are many natural things you can do you to help relieve symptoms: like implementing a better sleep routine, better diet, socialising and of course… exercise!
If you’re still not convinced that regular exercise is good for your mental health, then here’s a whole list:
Happy Chemicals = Happy Mind!
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.
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 feels really good.
Whether you gain confidence from learning a new trick on the bike, or beating your personal best, 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 to 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 workout.
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 the 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.
So there we have it! There are many reasons why regular exercise is great 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 some friends and feel good!
Although, exercise is not the only thing you can do to improve your mental health. Some days, you won’t feel like moving a muscle and that’s totally ok – I sure don’t ride my bike every single day! For the days you don’t feel like doing much, make a plan for another time and instead, do something you want to do for yourself, like watch a trashy movie with a friend, take a bath and cwtch up with your cat (in my case anyway).
If you’re struggling with mental health issues, here are a few helplines that can help. Alternatively, make an appointment with your healthcare professional for further advice and guidance on medication.
Charity providing support if you’ve been diagnosed with an anxiety condition.
Phone: 03444 775 774 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5.30pm)
A charity helping people living with manic depression or bipolar disorder.
CALM is the Campaign Against Living Miserably, for men aged 15-35.
Charity for sufferers of depression. Has a network of self-help groups.
Mental Health Foundation
Provides information and support for anyone with mental health problems or learning disabilities.
Promotes the views and needs of people with mental health problems.
Phone: 0300 123 3393 (Mon-Fri, 9am-6pm)
Voluntary charity offering support for sufferers of panic attacks and OCD. Offers a course to help overcome your phobia/OCD. Includes a helpline.
Phone: 0844 967 4848 (daily, 10am-10pm)
Support for people with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Includes information on treatment and online resources.
Phone: 0845 390 6232 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-5pm)
A charity run by people with OCD, for people with OCD. Includes facts, news and treatments.
Phone: 0845 120 3778 (Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm)
Young suicide prevention society.
Phone: HOPElineUK 0800 068 4141 (Mon-Fri,10am-5pm & 7-10pm. Weekends 2-5pm)
Rethink Mental Illness
Support and advice for people living with mental illness.
Phone: 0300 5000 927 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4pm)
Confidential support for people experiencing feelings of distress or despair.
Phone: 116 123 (free 24-hour helpline)
Emotional support, information and guidance for people affected by mental illness, their families and carers.
SANEline: 0300 304 7000 (daily, 4.30-10.30pm)
Textcare: comfort and care via text message, sent when the person needs it most: http://www.sane.org.uk/textcare
Peer support forum: www.sane.org.uk/supportforum
Information on child and adolescent mental health. Services for parents and professionals.
Phone: Parents’ helpline 0808 802 5544 (Mon-Fri, 9.30am-4pm)