When it comes to boosting your mood and calming you down, exercise does a lot of heavy lifting.
Mind and body are reliable teammates, and working on one benefits the other.
More and more, research shows we can influence our mental health through working up a sweat – especially important when you consider an estimated 45% of Australians experience a mental health condition in our lifetimes, according to the Australian National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing.
Working up a sweat can have acute benefits on mood, and that ‘runner’s high’ feeling we get just after a workout does wonders for our mental health, research has shown. No need to go hard and spend all day on the treadmill – studies have reported positive effects from light and moderate intensity exercise too.
Even just taking 10 minutes out of your lunch break – or getting off the bus a few stops early and walking the rest of the way – can improve your mood the same way a hot yoga sesh or jog does.
As well as reducing symptoms of depression, anxiety and stress in people who have a diagnosed mental disorder, regular workouts can reduce stress and boost the moods of people experiencing a physical health condition (like cancer or diabetes).
Need more convincing? How about this: a 2017 study published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that regular exercise can help prevent future depression, so it functions as a protective barrier, as well as a treatment.
Okay, but how does that work?
Before that rush of endorphins and post-workout flush arrive, here's what might be going on in your brain:
- Noradrenaline is released, waking up the brain and getting it going.
- Dopamine gets a boost, improving your mood, feelings of wellness and motivation, and jump-starting your attention system.
- Serotonin increases, improving how we perceive and regulate our emotions.
- Brain-derived neurotropic factor (BDNF) is promoted. BDNF protects our neurons against cortisol in areas that control mood.
- Self-esteem is boosted, thanks to norepinephrine – and also because of that trademark sense of accomplishment.
- Social connection and a sense of community come from exercising in groups.
Forget what you think you 'should' do: the best type of exercise is the one you enjoy doing, you can maintain and that has your body’s longevity in mind. No one type of exercise is better than the other, but it'd good to create a balanced exercise routine that combines cardio with resistance training to strengthen muscles and joints under load. Even better: when done for bouts of 45 minutes or less, resistance training has a significant impact on reducing depressive symptoms. Win-win!
If you don't want to go it alone, consider team sports. Along with cycling, aerobic exercise and gym workouts, they have the highest associations with good mental health, according to a large observational study published in The Lancet Psychiatry journal in 2018.