How Physical Fitness Supports Mental Health

By The Team @ Healthy Being   |   15 July 2021 

The Intimate Connection Between Body and Mind - Looking After Your Mental Health with Exercise

The link between regular exercise and physical health is well-established and almost impossible to ignore. In recent years, however, more profound links have been uncovered between physical fitness and mental health outcomes. Regular physical activity can help you to feel more positive about the world around you. It can help reduce depression and anxiety symptoms, improve your sleeping patterns, and sharpen up your mental apparatus and memory.

While the mind and body are obviously related, scientific studies continue to highlight the intimate connection that exists between the external and internal worlds. Like everything else in life, this relationship goes both ways, with mental wellbeing also capable of improving physical health outcomes.

Let's take a closer look at how you can support your mental health with exercise.

The Importance of Mental Health

In a modern world struggling with isolation, looking after your mental health is more important than ever before. Mental health is a broad descriptor that describes behavioural, cognitive, and emotional wellbeing. It's about how you behave, think, and feel. True mental health is about more than the absence of mental disorders — it's also about supporting ongoing wellness and giving happiness a chance to thrive.

The traditional advice surrounding mental health is solid, with meaningful relationships, stress management, and everyday mindfulness all playing a key role. However, over the last few years, there has been a new focus on the importance of physical input. From food and alcohol consumption to regular exercise routines, what we do on the outside has a significant effect on how we think and feel within.

Mental Health Benefits of Exercise

Exercise releases powerful chemicals like endorphins, serotonin, and cannabinoids into your brain. These chemicals can improve your mood in different ways, which some people experience as the 'runner's high'. The immediate feel-good sensations associated with exercise also have a long-term impact, as this activity pumps blood to your brain in a way that influences your entire physiology. The following benefits have been proven.

Reduced Depression Symptoms

Exercise can be an effective natural treatment to help fight depression. While going for a run will not eliminate depression in all people at all times, according to studies, it can help to reduce depressive symptoms. Exercise can even be effective for patients with major depressive disorders, which may make it a viable alternative or addition to pharmacologic treatment programs.

Exercise starts a cascade of biological events in the brain. Proteins are released, neurological growth factors are ignited, and new connections are made through neurogenesis. Many people with serious depressive disorders have a smaller hippocampus than the general population, and exercise is shown to promote nerve cell growth and initiate new connections in this part of the brain.

Decreased Anxiety Levels

Exercise has been shown to decrease some of the biological and psychological mechanisms associated with anxiety. While the exact reasons are unclear, once again, it could be due to the enhancement of neurogenesis. When there is more movement in the body and blood, new connections are more likely to develop in the brain, and individuals are less likely to get stuck in negative feedback patterns.

Improved Sleeping Patterns

Whether it's going for a long walk in the forest or swimming in the ocean at the break of dawn, exercise can improve your sleeping patterns. As you might expect, the quality and quantity of your sleep are important to your health in many different ways. According to studies, exercise may be a crucial behavioural treatment for improving poor sleep. In fact, there is a bidirectional relationship between exercise and sleep, with physical activity helping to promote sleep and sleep helping to inspire physical activity.

Increased Mental Focus and Memory

Physical activity helps to change your brain, which has an effect on both memory and thinking skills. As we have noted, exercise pumps blood to the brain, which helps to reduce insulin resistance, prevent inflammation, and stimulate the release of chemicals. This has a direct effect on blood vessels in the brain and the long-term health of brain cells.

As we have also mentioned, regular exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of the brain directly responsible for memory. It also increases connections between various nerve cells in the brain, which helps to improve your memory and protect your brain against injury and disease as you age.

The Mind-Body Connection Goes Both Ways

The connection between mind and body also works the other way, with mental toughness and positive thinking known to impact a range of physical health outcomes. In one study, people with an optimistic outlook were found to have a better working memory. Enthusiastic and cheerful people were also less likely to experience memory decline as they age. Psychologists call this the 'positive affect', and it's been linked to a number of physical, cognitive, and psychological systems.

The study looked at middle-aged and older adults at three time periods over a decade. Each participant reported their emotions while having their memory tested. While memory decline with age was a common factor, the people with a higher positive affect experienced much better outcomes. The exact mechanisms behind this connection are not yet understood, but the power of positive thought seems to be a very real thing.

Numerous other studies have looked at the links between physical and mental health, with the implications of the mind-body connection seeming to go far beyond memory. In one study, the positive effect was found to influence heart health. When people with a family history of heart disease were more optimistic, they were one-third less likely to experience a cardiovascular event. In another study, smiling — even when fake — was found to reduce heart rate and blood pressure during stressful situations.

Stepping Forward with Clarity and Movement

If you want to look after your mental health, there are lots of tools at your disposal. Along with tried-and-tested techniques like spending time with friends and asking for help when needed, it's important to look at what happens inside your own head. Whether it's forming new relationships in the big wide world or making neurological links deep inside your brain, mental health is all about feeling connected.

Positive thinking can be a great leap forward, but this can be easier said than done. While mindfulness can teach you powerful thinking skills through thought recognition and filtering strategies, exercise gives you an opportunity to change the physical foundations of your brain from the inside out. Whether it's a gentle walk in the park, a ride around the block on your bike, or a trip to the gym before work, moving around in the world helps to inspire new connections within. 

Following an active lifestyle can have a profound effect on what you think and how you feel about the world around you. When you eat well, exercise regularly, and get the rest you deserve, you are setting up sustainable lifestyle habits that will support your mental health for years to come.

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