Exercise and Mental Health

Mild to moderate amounts of exercise if done consistently have been shown to calm the fear and anxious centers of the brain while increasing blood flow to the frontal cortex - as well as increasing endorphins. More research is showing us how important exercise is to our mental health.

Current research into the neuroscience of exercise shows physical activity can not only invigorate your muscles but also change your brain chemistry in permanent ways. Wow, we have 100 billion neurons in our brains. What are neurons? Well, Neurons are cells that have three components: a cell body, axons and dendrites; axons emit signals, while dendrites receive them. Our neurons communicate via electrochemical signals. Our neurons emit electric "sparks" allowing the transfer of chemicals (called neurotransmitters) between the axon of one neuron, and the dendrite of another. The space between a communicating dendrite and axon is known as the synapse. Your brain depends on how well your neurons communicate with each other. Hmmm see positive communication is just not important for our relationships but for our brains! But reduced dopamine and serotonin equals fewer feelings of pleasure; reduced GABA in the synapse can lead to anxiety and low mood.

Neurotransmitters most influenced by exercise:

  • Dopamine - the pleasure chemical, associated with learning and euphoria.

  • Serotonin - the content chemical, associated with feelings of well-being and memory.

  • Glutamate - plays a role in learning, memory and plasticity (more on this later!).

  • GABA - plays a role in emotional processing.

Brain areas most changed by exercise:

  • Hippocampus - long-term memory; exists across both sides of the brain and looks like a seahorse.

  • Amygdala - emotional memory system and impairment of the amygdala correlates with heightened feelings of anxiety and fear.

  • Frontal cortex - the front-most part of our brain, associated with personality, decision-making, and thought.

Our brains have the ability to adapt and change. Every time we learn something new our brains form new connections. But it takes time to make it settled in our brain. So the key is being consistent. Repetition creates stronger neuron connections. This means exercise to practice a new way of thinking and being in the world. If you are trying to practice looking at solutions vs. looking for the problem, it will take time to re-establish that habit of looking for the problem. It's a habit. So, remember when I teach new ways of being or thinking you need to do it daily for at least 40 days to see change. As exercise research has also shown it takes time to develop new pathways...but we also see immediate results as well...not just long-term. Long-term means it will be a new habit.

By increasing blood flow to the frontal cortex, exercise can improve thinking and mood in some individuals (article to read). Exercise increases new cells in the hippocampus that assist in-memory storage and frontal lobe function even as we age (another article about aging and exercise and this article on aging). More research is needed to further understand the process of exercise on the brain and particularly how it impacts aging.

Exercise helps calm the amygdala which is the fear center of the brain that is associated with emotions. Neurotransmitters affecting mood and nervous system health increase their ability to function post exercise. After about 10 weeks The immediate effects you feel are the result of endorphins in your brain. This is because your brain is undergoing significant molecular and structural alterations as a result of your exercise routine.

But the exercise should also be fun, 30-45 mins and about 3-5 a week to get the benefits - it appears 10 weeks to show more positive benefits. Its important to make sure you're healthy enough to exercise. Make sure you get your yearly checkup with your doctor to ask these important questions.

What are some ways to make exercise fun? :-) Move for the joy of moving. I enjoy hiking, finding new parks to explore, yoga for exercise (vs. meditation and mindfulness), dancing, CrossFit activities and I love supernatural on the oculus VR headset.

Last note:

Don't exercise for appearance and social approval. I say that without apologizing for my strong opinion. Your intention is everything. Its very motivating to exercise for the love of self, increase in energy, improvement cognitive functioning, overall health and increase in flexibility and overall muscular functioning.

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