Hitting the gym, going for a run, or any type of aerobic exercise provides the cardiovascular and muscular benefits we all know about, but exercise can also improve your mental health as well. Regardless of age or fitness level, the effects of exercise on your brain can help lead to happier results.
The most immediate effect exercise has on brain function is instantly enhancing one’s mood. Aerobic exercise such as dancing, swimming, jogging, or going for a long walk, will increase blood circulation to the brain – particularly to the limbic system, which controls motivation and mood; the amygdala, which generates fear in response to stress; and the hippocampus, which is important to memory formation as well as mood.
If you’ve ever gone for a run or exercised after a stressful day, chances are you felt a little better afterwards. This small effect is caused by a trigger in your brain to increase endorphins – chemicals that act like a home-brewed version of morphine – causing what’s known as a “runner’s high.” In 2008, German researchers used brain scans on runners and found that during two-hour-long runs, the runners’ pre-frontal and limbic systems spewed out endorphins. Because these systems respond to emotions like love, the greater the endorphin surge in these brain areas, the more euphoric the runners reported feeling.
Though you’ll want to push yourself during exercise in order to feel these euphoric results, it’s important to avoid pushing yourself to a maximum level of intensity. Attempting a pace or exercise that’s too aggressive may overwhelm all those good feelings. Endorphins are powerful, but cannot override injuries. If you’re new to running or exercising, this may be why you aren’t exactly elated when just starting out. It takes some practice to get a runner’s high.
In addition to enhancing your mood, exercise can also help reduce anxiety levels. When we feel anxious or threatened, our nervous systems react, causing sweating, dizziness and an increased heart rate. People with a heightened sensitivity to these reactions respond to them with sensations of fear, causing further anxiety. Researchers sought to find natural ways to reduce these anxious experiences, and one way they found that works is regularly exercising. In response to exercise, the body produces much of the same reactions that experiencing fear produces (sweating, increased heart rate). After implementing regular exercise into their weekly routines, those with a heightened sensitivity to anxiety showed significant improvements in controlling feelings of anxiety and becoming calmer.
Studies have shown that thirty minutes of moderate exercise for three days a week can produce sufficient mental health benefits. Learning how to make time for exercise can help improve your overall health, too. Such improvements include:
- Decreased stress and mental fatigue
- Natural energy boosts
- Improved sleep
- Sense of achievement
- Increased focus and motivation
- A healthy appetite
- Better social life
Have you noticed any mood enhancements after incorporating regular exercise into your routine? Tell us your story on our Facebook page.