According to the NHS, the recommended amount of exercise is about 150 minutes every week. We all know that exercise is good for the body, but it also remains one of the best ways to improve mental health. It is a significant part of the treatment regimen for those who suffer from certain mental problems, such as anxiety, ADHD, and depression, but the best thing about it is that you don’t have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits. No matter your fitness level or age, you can make a difference even with modest amounts of exercise.
Exercise is beneficial to our brain
People who work out regularly find that it gives them a huge sense of well-being. They sleep better at night, feel more relaxed, have a sharper memory, feel more energetic throughout the day, and feel more positive about themselves. Some experts claim that exercise increases levels of a ‘happy chemical’ called serotonin – a neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants. Other theories include the release of endorphins, breakdown of muscle tension (which decreases physical pain and improves sleep), interruption of cycles of negative thoughts, and improvements in self-esteem.
Exercise can prevent cognitive decline
A host of factors are known to contribute to the age-related cognitive decline. Degenerative and ageing diseases, such as Alzheimer’s, kill off brain cells; the head actually shrinks and loses many important brain functions in the process. Even though unpleasant, it is true – our brains get a little ‘hazy’ as we get older. Of course, exercise can’t cure Alzheimer’s, but it can help shore up the brain against the age-related cognitive decline (which starts after the age of 45). Working out boosts brain chemicals that support and prevent degeneration of the part of the brain in charge of learning and memory.
Exercise can fight depression
There are several reasons why exercise is a powerful depression fighter. It promotes various changes in the brain, such as reduced inflammation, neural growth, and new activity patterns (promoting feelings of well-being and calm). Exercise triggers the release of endorphins and serotonin that make us feel good and energise our spirits. It can also serve as a time to break out of the negative-thought cycle that depression feeds on. Exercise can treat mild to moderate depression, while maintaining an exercise schedule can prevent one from relapsing.
Exercise can boost memory
Physical activity can improve our ability to retain and store memories, and also our ability to learn new things. The production of cells in the hippocampus increases due to regular exercise, which boosts brain development and brain power. The brain cells get healthier, new blood vessels grow in the brain, and with more blood flow, your brain is sharper.
Exercise can combat stress
When under stress, your muscles (especially the face, neck, and shoulders ones) may be tense, you may feel muscle cramps, a pounding pulse, or a tightness in your chest. Other symptoms of long-term stress can be stomach ache, heartburn, insomnia, frequent urination, or diarrhoea, while the discomfort and worrying about these physical indicators can lead to even more stress. This cycle can be broken by exercising, which helps relieve the tension and relax the muscles. Once your body feels better, your mind will too, as the two are closely linked.
Exercise helps our self-confidence
You’ve probably felt like a million bucks after a sweaty workout session more than once. Physical fitness can lead to a positive self-image and boost self-esteem. It can quickly elevate your perception of attractiveness, regardless of your size, weight, age or gender. Exercise gives you a sense of accomplishment, makes you feel and look better, and makes you stronger. Just looking at yourself in the mirror after your workout sessions while wearing great gym outfits can boost your sense of self-worth and have you walk out of the gym feeling calm and content.
It is a fact that being physically active is beneficial for our bodies. But our physical health and mental health are closely linked – so physical activity can be very beneficial for our mental health and well-being too. Being active doesn’t mean you need to spend hours in the gym, if that doesn’t appeal to you. Find physical activities that you enjoy and think about how to fit more of them into your daily life.
Dennis Relojo-Howell is the founder of Psychreg. He writes for the American Psychological Association and has a weekly column for Free Malaysia Today.