Exercise: Good for the Body, Great for the Mind

The link between exercise and mental health

Exercise: Good for the Body, Great for the Mind

The science behind the physical benefits of exercise has long been established. However, we are now starting to better understand the psychological and emotional benefits too.

"People who are fit in their 40s seem to retain more brain volume two decades later and also perform better on decision-making tests, new research suggests."

There are now numerous studies outlining the benefits of exercise and how it is used for the treatment of conditions such as schizophrenia, anxiety and depression as well as the prevention of age related conditions such as memory loss and Alzheimer’s.

Exercise has proven to improve mood and emotion. When we exercise we produce hormones called endorphins which minimise pain and produce feelings of pleasure. Other hormones such as “brain derived neurotrophic factor” act as a reset switch in your mind. These hormones work to protect and clear your mind and help you make effective decisions. These hormones are the reasons why exercise can help you feel good! The effects can last for up to 12 hours and not only assist in resetting the mind but also help make better diet choices, increase metabolism, increase energy and arouse a heightened sense of accomplishment.

While quantifying the effects of exercise on the mind is a little more difficult to quantify than physical benefits, what is known, is that exercise does have a positive effect on mood and the feeling of well-being. The evidence suggests that the greater the intensity the more benefit there is on mood. This is true for both aerobic and resistance training. For example, exercising on a treadmill or stationary bike at a moderate intensity for three to five times a week for 12 weeks can significantly reduce depressive symptoms, where as the same exercises for the same frequency at low intensity yielded no significant reduction (Dunn et al., 2005). In other studies participants who completed 150 to 200 minutes of walking found to improved physical wellbeing but also felt better emotionally, were more socially connected and were also aided against depressive symptoms (Heech et al., 2015). It has also been shown that for sedentary individuals exercise can have similar effects to antidepressants for those diagnosed with mild depression (Bluementhal, J.A. et al 1999; 2007). However, exercise cannot be used as a stand-alone treatment method for depression. So whether you’re walking down the beach, pounding pavement, doing laps of a pool or hitting the gym, those who partake in moderate intensity exercise most days of the week, generally feel better and show significantly less depressive symptoms.

People are often surprised to hear that fitness levels in their early 40s can impact their brain health as they move into older adulthood.  When the exercise behaviour of 1,200 study participants’ exercise was tracked over 20 years, those who showed higher heart rate and increased diastolic blood pressure (both signs of lower fitness levels) had MRIs that showed smaller brain volumes in their 60s. Smaller brain volumes have been associated with age related memory loss and Alzheimer’s. Participants who exercised during the study, showed improved decision making, cognition, balance and executive functioning such as planning (Brown et al. 2013). Whether fitness is tied to lower instances of dementia is yet to be determined. So whether you’re training for a specific goals or simply to stray fit, exercise has more benefits than just physical and may be the key to a healthy mind as well!

We are yet to accurately identify whether certain types of exercise work best for mental health, or how much (time/frequency) is needed to bring about different effects. If you’re starting out and want to improve your mood, a thirty minute brisk walk, a few times a week is a good general starting point. From there, we have a broad range of classes to progress through, from low impact classes such as Pilates and Yoga, to focused cardiovascular and strength workouts such as HIIT and Load Up. If you are unsure about how to start an exercise program please consult one of our Accredited Exercise Physiologists for further advice.

Blumenthal. J.A., Babyak, M.A., Craighead, W. E., Herman S., Parinda Khatri, P… Krishnan, K.R. (1999). Effects of exercise training on older patients with major depression. Archives of Internal Medicine, 159(19), 2349-2356.

Blumenthal. J.A., Babyak, M.A., Doraiswamy, P.M., Watkins, L., Hoffman, B. M., Barbour, K. A… Sherwood, A. (2007). Exercise and pharmacotherapy in the treatment of major depressive disorder. Psychosomatic Medicine, 69(7), 587-596.

Brown, B.M. Peiffer, J.J. and Martins, R.N. (2013). Multiple effects of physical activity on molecular and cognitive signs of brain aging: can exercise slow neurodegeneration and delay Alzheimer’s disease? Molecular Psychiatry (2013) 18, 864–874

Dunn, A.L., Trivedi, M.H., Kampert , J.B., Clark, C.G., and Chambliss, H.O. (2005). Exercise treatment for depression: Efficacy and dose response. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 28(1) 1-8.

Heesch, K.C., Van Gellecum, Y.R., Burton, N.W., Van Uffelen, J.G., Brown, W.J. (2015) Physical Activity, Walking, and Quality of Life in Women with Depressive Symptoms. American Journal of Preventative Medicine, 48(3), 281-289.

Nicole Spartano, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow, Boston University School of Medicine, Boston; Joseph Masdeu, M.D., director, Nantz National Alzheimer Center, and neuroimaging, Houston Methodist Neurological Institute, Houston; March 4, 2015, presentation, American Heart Association EPI/Lifestyle 2015 meeting, Baltimore To view full article http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/news/fullstory_151282.html

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About the Author

Ashley Nguyen

Ashley Nguyen

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Comments (3)

  • Ben Abbey

    Ben Abbey

    • 14 April 2015 at 08:44
    • #

    Well written Ash, this provides a great insight as to how the body and mind work together, and the effects, both positive and negative it can have on the body!


  • Dot


    • 18 April 2015 at 10:34
    • #

    Great article Ash. Having exercised all my life then having 2 years off due to injury, I can attest to everything you are saying. Since joining Core Principles I have noticed an improvement in both my stamina and well being in only 3 months.


    • Ash Nguyen

      Ash Nguyen

      • 07 May 2015 at 15:45
      • #

      That's great to hear Dot! Keep up the great work!!


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