written by Katharine Sniffen
Exercising daily can yield results that are physical in nature, such as looking fit and fab, maintaining or losing weight, and improving strength and endurance. But aside from it being one of the three New Year's resolutions you ought to stick to, regular exercise also yields benefits far beyond the physical ones, as it can improve your mental health. Read on to find out how.
Exercise improves well-being
HelpGuide points out in 'The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise' how regular physical activity is an investment you can make for your mind, body, and soul. When this investment becomes ingrained in your lifestyle, it will foster a sense of self-worth. In other words, it gives you confidence because you'll feel good about yourself knowing that you're looking and feeling better. Moreover, meeting your exercise goals, whether big or small, will give you that sense of achievement, thus making you feel even better about yourself. These positive feelings will, in turn, improve your well-being and overall mental health.
Exercise can clear your mind
Exercising can trigger a chain reaction of physiological changes that impact your mind. It can even cause changes in your nervous system. In fact, ‘What I Do When I’m Feeling Heavy, Tired and Toxic’ on Parsley Health notes how exercise can stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) in a positive manner. This is the rest-and-digest part of the nervous system, as it helps the body heal itself, ensures the immune system is functioning properly, restores the adrenal glands, and assists the digestive tract in absorbing food. In serving these functions, the PNS helps balance the body’s flight-or-fight response — an aroused state of high alert and high anxiety caused by the activation of the PNS’ counterpart, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS). The result is a calmer, more relaxed state without high levels of stress, which can cloud your mind and compromise its ability to function optimally. In the long-term, this also prevents chronic stress, a condition that alters the brain and increases the risk of anxiety, depression, and addiction.
Exercise “maintains” the brain
Just as exercise can improve muscle size and density, so can it enhance brain matter — to a certain degree. Researchers from Western Sydney University confirmed this in a 2017 study, concluding that regular exercise helped increase the size of the hippocampus, a region of the brain vital to memory and other cognitive functions. The findings of the study, published in NeuroImage, showed that aerobic exercise like stationary cycling, walking, and treadmill running helped increase the size of the hippocampus’ left region, thereby improving memory. Crucially, exercising can keep your brain in good shape even as you age. This is due to the production of a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which can reduce the brain’s deterioration through the years. In a sense, exercising acts as a maintenance program for the brain, making it less susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s. Consequently, you’ll be able to stay mentally sharp and focused for longer.
Exercise can reduce mental health symptoms
Lastly, Very Well Mind details how exercise is often prescribed as part of a treatment regimen for some mental health conditions, notably depression, panic disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). That’s because exercise can alleviate many of depression’s symptoms, like tension, anger, lethargy, and fatigue. Exercise is also effective against PTSD and other anxiety-related conditions because it can serve as a proactive means to release pent-up tension and lessen feelings of fear and worry. Additionally, sustained physical activity can also reduce your sensitivity to anxiety, and can even, in some cases, decrease the frequency and intensity of panic attacks. Now, if you are exercising regularly, you are effectively protecting yourself from these mental health conditions. So, start making exercise a part of your life!