“If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.”

Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky – Genetic metabolic neurologist – (THE NEW SCIENCE OF EXERCISE, Time.com, 2017)

The power of exercise is an under promoted method when it comes to improving brain function and mental health; in the past this was largely down to the lack of research into the links between exercise and its’ effect on brain function.  But now that Neurologists/fitness enthusiasts such as Dr. Mark Tarnopolsky are on the case, there is an increasing body of research investigating how beneficial exercise truly is; not just for our physical health, but our mental heath too.  So just what are the benefits of exercise on your mental health? 

Let’s get into the nitty gritty science stuff…

Stress buster – Your stress levels are regulated by your fight-or-flight response.  This mechanism is the reason for our survival as a species up until now.  It is your brains’ natural response to danger.  If you were out in the Serengeti as a hunter gatherer, and you identified a lion heading your way, you would have two responses; do I need to fight or do I need to run?  This high-pressure situation would trigger the production of cortisol in your body, you would then over exert yourself physically, either by running or fighting, and (providing you survived of course) your body would then be able to regulate itself and your cortisol levels would start to decrease and eventually return to normal.

In the modern age we are bombarded with everyday situations that induce our fight-or-flight response (road rage/work stress/financial stress) but with no real physical exertion taking place afterwards; where does the cortisol go?  It stays in your body and you stay stressed and wired.  By taking part in regular exercise we can better equip our bodies and minds to regulate our stress responses more efficiently.  

General mood booster – The feel-good chemicals in your brain are Dopamine, Serotonin and Norepinephrine; a deficit in these chemicals can be found in patients with depression.  Exercise boosts the availability of all 3 of these chemicals to your brain!  In fact, studies have shown that 30 minutes of jogging 3x per week is just as effective as some antidepressants!

Increases motivation and focus – As far as your brain hard-wiring is concerned, it likes to be rewarded!  In fact, this is the reason why it is so difficult to get motivated to complete tasks in which there seems to be no personal gain.  The payoff chemical your brain looks for is called Dopamine, and when you have a deficit of this chemical, your motivation and focus lowers as a result.  How can you super charge your Dopamine levels I hear you ask…EXERCISE.   Not only does it increase Dopamine storage, it also helps produce more dopamine receptors in your brain.

Reduces anxiety – Exercise promotes a healthier stress response, boosts your mood and increases your motivation and focus and as a result can dramatically reduce anxiety!

So now that we’ve covered the why… let’s get to the how, what and when!

By undertaking 20 minutes of exercise a day you should start to notice some of the benefits on your mental health almost immediately.   If you can manage to fit 20 minutes of exercise into your morning routine this will lower your cortisol levels for the rest of the day, as well as increase the availability of the feel-good chemicals your brain requires to stay mellow!  Obviously, this is the ideal scenario and can be difficult to achieve when there seems to be a never ending to do list before leaving the house to start your day.  If you can’t fit exercise into your morning routine, working out in the evening will still contribute.

No matter the intensity of your chosen work out, it will still benefit your mental health!  For example, a brisk 20-minute walk to work instead of driving, or a 20-minute gentle Yoga routine will still boost your mood.  Swimming, cycling and running are great too.  The important thing is to aim to get your body moving consistently.  If 20 minutes a day is too much to start off with, try 10 minutes every day.  If you have a support network, ask if anyone would like to start a class or a regular walk/jog with you.  In this way you can support and motivate each other.  But most importantly remember to be kind to yourself!

This article has been written by #Activfirst in Support of #MentalHealthAwareness day.  #KindnessMatters


Medical Disclaimer *Please take note that the above is by no means a substitute for your Doctors’ advice.  Always listen to your Doctors’ recommendations.  This article contains general information about medical conditions and treatments.  The information is not advice, and should not be treated as such*

Bibliography: Time.com. (2017). The New Science of Exercise. [online] Available at: http://time.com/4475628/the-new-science-of-exercise/ [Accessed 9 Oct. 2017].