As far back as Hippocrates, healthcare practitioners have extolled the belief that exercise is medicine.
Sadly less than 23% of U.S. adults meet federal physical activity guidelines. But it’s commonly understood that exercise can dramatically reduce risks associated with cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, type II diabetes, and numerous other ailments and diseases.
It has also been long accepted that exercise has numerous profound benefits for our mental health. And researchers are finally starting to unravel some of the epidemiological links observed between activity, brain health, neurodegenerative diseases, depression, and mood disorders.
So to mark World Mental Health Day, we wanted to highlight some of those important findings.
#1: Exercise can be as effective as antidepressants for treating depression and anxiety.
A meta-analysis of 21 randomized, controlled trials recently published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that “Exercise alleviates symptoms of depression to a similar extent as antidepressant treatments alone or in combination with exercise.”
Another recent study found that exercise was associated with a 25% lower risk of depression.
Research has also found that those who turn to exercise to manage depression had significantly lower relapse rates after 10 months than those taking antidepressant drugs.
And while some studies have focused more on exercise for managing mild to moderate depression, a 2016 meta-analysis of 25 other studies published in the Journal of Psychiatric Research found that exercise can have a significant impact on managing even severe depression.
Some of the specific means by which exercise can help with depression, anxiety, and mood include:
Increased confidence and self-esteem: Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence. Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
Greater social interaction: Exercise and physical activity - and especially group exercise classes - can give you the chance to meet or socialize with others, and form meaningful new relationships or strengthen existing ones.
Coping in a healthy way: Doing something positive to manage depression or anxiety is a healthy coping strategy. Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how you feel, or hoping depression or anxiety will go away on its own can make things worse.
In a poll conducted by the American Dental Association in March of 2021 (in the midst of COVID shutdowns), 71% of dentists reported seeing a marked uptick in people grinding and clenching their teeth - a condition often associated with stress - and 63% cited an increase in patients with chipped and cracked teeth.
#2: Exercise supercharges and protects your brain.
Research has shown that regular exercise can markedly improve cognitive functions: the ability to think, recall, focus, and make quick decisions. It has also been shown to improve the health and function of neurons in the brain, and has even been proven to be effective for managing behavioral disorders like ADHD.
It also helps protect our brains from degenerative diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinsons.
Exercise causes our muscles to excrete a myokine called irisin. Irisin itself is believed to decrease inflammation caused by malfunctions in the brain’s immune system. Irisin also boosts levels of a protein called brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in the hippocampus. The hippocampus mediates several higher brain functions, such as learning, memory, and spatial coding. It also happens to be one of the first regions of the brain that changes in neurodegenerative diseases. BDNF promotes the health and growth of synapses and neurones, which promotes synaptic plasticity and helps protect the brain from diseases like Alzheimers and Parkinsons.
#3: Exercise helps you sleep better, which is critical to the optimal functioning of virtually every biological system and process in your body.
Getting adequate sleep is critical to our physical and mental health, and lowers the risk of a wide range of diseases. But according to the CDC, 1 in three Americans don’t get enough sleep (7+ hours a night).
Getting enough sleep enables proper brain and body restoration, memory consolidation, cell restoration, and the removal of toxins from the brain. It’s also critical to the functioning of the immune system and maintenance of proper hormone levels, including:
- Melatonin, which helps promote sleep.
- Growth hormone, which supports bone and muscle development as well as metabolism.
- Cortisol, which is part of the body’s stress response system.
- Leptin and ghrelin, which help control appetite.
A study in the journal Sleep Medicine reported that participants with a self-reported sleep time of less than 6.5 hours who completed moderate-intensity workouts four times a week for six weeks got an extra 75 minutes of sleep per night — more than any drug helped deliver.
Some recent research has suggested that strength training may do more to help restful sleep than aerobic exercise. But it’s generally believed that any form of exercise can help.
#4: Exercise helps release a variety of powerful neurotransmitters including endocannabinoids - the body’s own version of THC and CBD - which make you and your body feel better.
Although exercise initially spikes the stress response in the body, after bouts of physical activity people experience lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine. While many of the positive mental effects associated with exercise have long been attributed to endorphins, more recent research has shown that so-called endogenous cannabinoids (“endocannabinoids”) deserve much of the credit.
Endocannabinoids are natural cannabis-like brain chemicals that are released during exercise. The areas of the brain that regulate the stress response, including the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, are rich in receptors for endocannabinoids. When endocannabinoid molecules lock into these receptors, they reduce anxiety and promote feelings of contentment, including the euphoria of “runners high”. Endocannabinoids also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward system, which further fuels feelings of optimism. They also affect hunger, inflammation and immune functioning, help to relieve pain, and enhance learning and memory.
One final consideration: The interrelationships between our behaviors and the various biological systems and mechanisms that produce these effects are often complex and intertwined. But research increasingly supports the old adage that virtue begets virtue, and positive behaviors encourage and reinforce more positive behaviors. A 2022 study concluded that exercise, relationships, and passion can work together synergistically to enhance brain health, increase happiness, and ward off cognitive decline.