Normally, we think of physical activity as a means of improving the health of our muscles, cardiovascular system, and BMI (body mass index)—though not so much our brain health. However, did you know that among the many benefits of exercise is the improvement of both your mental function and your mood?
In fact, exercise is a better solution to mood control and helping your brain perform at its best than prescription drugs or mental therapies, for the simple fact that it is a natural and readily available means of improving your brain’s chemistry.
Here is what you need to know about exercise, and what it can do for you in terms of improving your mood and mental function.
The Many Benefits of Exercise
Getting regular physical exercise is one of the most beneficial things you can do for your health. In fact, in addition to the obvious advantages of improved muscle tone, better cardiovascular health, and helping manage your weight, exercise can help you control your blood sugar, strengthen your bones, and even reduce your risk for some cancers. (1)
For instance, a recent study by the British Journal of Sports Medicine concluded that all activities—no matter the intensity—are beneficial for improved life expectancy, particularly in older men. By this, we can conclude that even light exercise can possibly help you live longer, and even those who only exercise randomly may be improving their life expectancy. (2)
Exercise can also improve your quality of life by keeping you mobile into old age. This includes the use of weight-bearing exercise, such as weight lifting or running, since doing so can help you maintain bone mass and guard against breaks. Since those who exercise also have better control of their weight, joint and cartilage problems are less likely to occur, and can even be reversed for some. (3)
And, quality of life also includes having a positive mental outlook and a healthy brain, which is something else exercise can help promote.
Exercise and Brain Facts
There are many ways exercise can help you improve your brain function, not the least of which is improvement of memory and your ability to learn. In fact, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise can boost the size of the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain responsible for memory and learning. However, the results were not the same with resistance and other muscle-toning exercises, although this doesn’t mean there aren’t mental benefits to any type of physical exercise.
But, this is especially welcome news for older adults, since it may hold a key to reversing the current trend of increased signs of dementia in our populations. Unfortunately, a new case is now reported on average of every 4 seconds globally.
And, by stimulating growth factor chemicals which help improve circulation in your brain through increased blood vessels and red blood cells, your memory and thinking can be improved through exercise. This also helps newly developing brains cells survive.
Additional studies show us that regular exercise of moderate intensity over the course of as little as 6-months can increase the size of certain brain regions such as the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, both of which help to control thinking and memory.
And, this is in addition to the effects exercise can have on your mood and well-being, something which can be influenced through improved sleep and the reduction of depression and anxiety. (4)
Exercise and Your Mood
By promoting neural growth, reducing inflammation, and through the release of endorphins, serotonin, and endocannabinoids, regular exercise is effective at treating mild to moderate depression. And, this is in addition to its ability to combat stress, as well as to reduce symptoms of ADHD, PTSD, and trauma for those who suffer these afflictions. (5)
But what are these chemicals, and how do they help to improve our mood?
First, there is the overall sense of well-being and ease which endorphins are known to provide after an exercise session. This is because endorphins are your body’s natural opiates which are there to damp the pain of exercise, which is why you often feel a “high” after a good workout.
Other research shows us that your body’s natural endocannabinoids receptors work in a similar manner and are thought to be responsible for what is known of as the “runner’s high,” which is something runners and other endurance athletes often feel during a particularly good exercise session. (6)
Serotonin is also your body’s “feel good” hormone, which can be thought of as a natural antidepressant, and it also helps to regulate your mood, appetite and sleep. Together, these brain chemicals act to combat depression and anxiety. (7,8)
You can even take it a step further and include the sense of accomplishment and improved confidence you feel after hitting a goal with your exercise, such as completing a marathon or hitting your weight loss goals. While this may seem borderline trivial to some, it can nonetheless make a marked improvement for many, especially those who struggle with their weight or confidence, both of which can add to symptoms of depression and mood instability.
Physical Exercises for Brain Health
So, to improve your memory, ability to learn, and mood, what exercises do you need to perform?
First, there is no one magic exercise which is easy and takes care of everything like a cure-all pill. For instance, aerobic exercise is the only form of exercise which appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, and likewise, exercise usually needs to be performed to a certain level for a marked increase in some brain chemicals to appear.
However, and as a rule, ANY exercise is better than no exercise, which holds true no matter your age.
In fact, you don’t necessarily need to join a gym, buy an expensive bike, or take up a dangerous sport to reap the mental benefits of exercise, since merely walking daily can provide a host of mental benefits.
Taking dance lessons, for instance, can offer the additional mental attributes of camaraderie with others and the learning of new steps—both of which are important in maintaining a positive outlook and in improving mental function, particularly as you age. (9)
You can also change your daily habits to include taking the stairs rather than the elevator, walking to do errands rather than driving, or using your break time at work to go for a stroll rather than sitting and reading. Taking small measures such as these can add up to a highly beneficial total that can help you reduce brain fog, increase your memory and learning ability, and help you approach your day in a positive and productive manner.
And of course, you can always join a gym or commit to taking up a sport, which can benefit you not only through an increase in your physical activity, but in your level of obligation as well.
Your brain health is highly important, and not only can exercise help to improve your brain’s function, it can decrease your symptoms of stress, depression and anxiety, as well.
Plus, there is evidence that regular exercise may help guard against dementia, as well as to improve memory and learning ability.
And, this is in addition to the other physical benefits of exercise such as weight loss, maintaining muscle tone, and improved cardiovascular health, all of which can help improve your self-image, self-confidence, and life expectancy.
So, take regular walks, take a dance class, or lace up your running shoes—your mind’s health and well-being will be better for it!
Hormone Balance and Brain Health
Did you know that hormone deficiencies can negatively affect brain function? For instance, low thyroid function can lead to depression and brain fog, and low progesterone can lead to depression and irritability? Take our symptom checker quiz today to find out if you are suffering from symptoms of hormone imbalance.
Hormone Balance and Brain Health