Exercise and mental wellbeing

Physical activity is good for your mind too
Exercise and mental wellbeing

Exercise helps enhance mood and fight depression and other stress-related disorders as it releases endorphins in the brain.

Dr Chaitanya Sridhar, a sports psychologist based in Bangalore

To most of us, health merely signifies the absence of an illness (physical, in most cases). Very few among us realize the importance of psychosocial or emotional health as part of our overall wellbeing. Also, while we are all aware of the benefits of exercise and physical activity on our body, did you know that they have positive effects on our mind as well?

According to the research paper “Exercise and Brain Neurotransmission”1, published in the journal Sports Medicine, exercise is linked with the release of brain chemicals such as serotonin and dopamine. Increased levels of serotonin and dopamine can lift your mood, and are known to reduce hostility, and make you more socially active. There is an overall improvement in your appetite, memory, and sexual desire and function. You also sleep better and find an increase in your focus and concentration while performing other tasks. This in turn helps boost your self-esteem and increases your sense of purpose and self-worth.

You are aware that a good exercise regime helps you keep fit, it also reduces the chances of falling ill as it strengthens your immune system. However, did you know that regular exercise also helps you cope with daily stresses? Here are some of the other emotional benefits of exercise:

  • Getting in shape makes you feel better about yourself and how you look.

  • Completing some exercise goals gives you a sense of achievement and confidence. For instance, if you decide that you shall exercise a certain number of times in a week irrespective of how busy you are, and are able to meet that goal, you feel satisfied that you were able to achieve the goal and this gives you a moral boost.

  • When you are engaged in physical activity, your mind is occupied positively and free of the worries and stresses of daily life.

  • Outdoor physical activity can be fun; it also increases the possibility of social interaction which can help improve your mood.

These are only some of the benefits of exercise; in essence, exercise gives a boost to the overall quality of your life. One reason most of us probably avoid exercise is because we associate the term exercise with strenuous workouts in the gym, which detracts us from doing any at all. In reality, even a regular walk or some jogging is quite beneficial.

Also, we don't usually associate exercise as a solution to our low moods; we tend to do the opposite. All we want is to be left alone to sit around feel bad for ourselves. Eventually this ends up making us feel worse. On the other hand, engaging in physical activity acts as a distraction and helps lift one's mood. “Movement shifts a person's energy levels when they are low, so even just jumping can help elevate their mood,” says Dr Sridhar. Research has shown that exercise is extremely helpful when you are trying to give up an addiction, such as alcohol or cigarettes; it helps reduce your cravings for the substance. Yoga in particular, is known to help with the symptoms of anxiety disorders, depression, insomnia and schizophrenia. It helps delay the onset of age-related illnesses such as dementia and also helps with reducing some factors of childhood mental illnesses, for instance it helps increase the child's attention.

The amount of physical activity that we partake in has been reducing gradually and will continue to reduce. While our earlier generations were engaged in labor-intensive jobs and a more active lifestyle, we have been introduced to more and more machines to increase 'efficiency' and reduce human effort. We use vehicles over the shortest of distances, have escalators and elevators instead of stairs, and even our toothbrushes are now motorized. At the same time, the number of people suffering from anxiety and depression raises a concern over our general wellbeing. While lack of exercise is not a direct cause for mental health issues, there is enough evidence to say that if you exercise regularly, you will have lower stress levels. If something as simple as a regular walk can improve your quality of life, isn't it worth your while to set aside some time for it?

Talking about runners as an example, Dr Sridhar says “Runners seem to be happier and more confident, not only due to their improved physical fitness, but also due to the feelings of accomplishment, pride and confidence in their abilities as athletes, relating to 'runners high'.”

1. R Meeusen, K De Meirleir, “Exercise and Brain Neurotransmission", Sports Medicine 20.3 (1995): 160-188

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