Exercise: medicine for the mind

Ever felt down and ditched your workout for a duvet-day? You’re not alone. And whilst we don’t doubt the value of staying in and de-stressing with your favourite TV series, TLC can take on more than one form. The next time you’re not in the mood to get moving, remember that the mind isn’t a lone ranger — it’s linked to your body — and often when your body feels better, your mind will too.

The runner’s high — that feeling of euphoria experienced after intense exercise — is a great example of the mood-boosting benefits exercise can have on the brain. In many cases, even a quick walk outside can do wonders for your well-being. Generally speaking, it’s the short-term spikes that are recognisable when looking at the effects of exercise on mental health, however, there are more long-term powers at play too.

Behind the scenes

Being active can directly alter the brain by changing its chemistry, structure and health of its cells. These changes can promote positive mental health by:

  • Increasing the blood flow to the brain. This means more of the good things like oxygen and nutrients can be delivered to the brain cells.
  • Stimulating the growth of new brain cells. This growth is especially visible in the hippocampus; the structure that’s at the core of our learning, memory, and emotion regulation. A link between depression and reduced growth of the hippocampus has been established, and antidepressants have been shown to target this. Exercise is a natural way to increase the volume of this region.
  • Boosting the neurotransmitters dopamine, noradrenaline and serotonin to help you feel good and focus.
  • Triggering endorphins and excess firing of the endocannabinoid system; this gives a pleasurable, painkilling response, often referred to as a ‘runner’s high’.

Fitness and feeling

All this talk of brain chemistry may sound impressive, but it can be hard to appreciate when it’s buried behind the scenes. Luckily, exercise affects the body in observable ways too. The positive effects that moving has on the mind can be experienced by all, so you don’t just have to take our word for it!

Mental health conditions can wreak havoc on our basic bodily functions which, in turn, can lead to more stress. Physical activity can help disrupt harmful cycles and restore normal patterns:

  • Tired? Exercise can energise you.
  • Insomnia? A walk in the afternoon can reduce the time it takes to fall asleep and improve the quality of your shut-eye.
  • Stressed? Focusing on fitness instead of negative thoughts can be a positive distraction from daily worries.
  • Feeling low? The social aspect of training in a team can spark shifts in attitude and improve quality of life.

Things to bear in mind

We know there’s no ‘one size fits all’ when it comes to mental health, however, exercise is an effective brain boost that everyone can enjoy in some shape or form.

Yoga can help with stress and anxiety

The body responds to emotional stress in a very physical way: muscles tense up, the heart starts racing and breathing may become more restricted. These are all signs that your automatic ‘fight-or-flight’ response has been switched on. As the name suggests, ‘fight-or-flight’ is an evolutionary survival mechanism that triggers when we feel under threat. Although we’re no longer on the lookout for predators, we’ve swapped the primal lifestyle for more modern stresses like traffic jams and demanding workloads.

Yoga provides the tools to tame the automatic shift to fight-or-flight mode, by tapping into the ‘rest-and-digest’ state of being. Mindful movement and breathing techniques turn on the bodies relaxation response, which promotes a slowing of the heart-rate and relaxation of muscles.

Aerobic exercise can keep the brain sharp 

Want to fend off the brain fog? Cardio isn’t just great for the heart, it grows the hippocampus too; this can boost memory, concentration and learning. An added bonus to aerobic exercise is the safeguarding against age-related cognitive decline. Stay sharp by engaging in short, regular bursts of aerobic exercise.

Movement margins

More isn’t always better. You don’t need to be a fitness fanatic to reap the mental benefits from moving. Just three 45-60 minute sessions of aerobic or resistance training per week have been proven to have a positive effect on depression. In fact, if you exercise for more than three hours a day, you may be getting too much of a good thing — excess physical activity can indicate worse mental health than doing nothing at all. Rest days are important for recovery — for both body and brain!

Stick with it. Quick-fixes are often short-lived, and although there’s benefit in seeing immediate results, training for 10-12 weeks has shown to be optimal to achieve that anti-depressant effect.

Every little counts. From winter sports to walking, all types of movement count towards keeping the blues at bay. In one study that tested 75 types of exercise, team sports, cycling, aerobic and gym exercise came out as top categories for mood-boosting but if you’re short on time, even household chores are on the radar for reducing the number of down days! You don’t have to break a sweat to experience a shift mentally — every little counts.

Food for thought

At Primal we often emphasise how important it is to fuel your body right, but the relationship between the mind and the body is a two-way street. The way your body functions can affect your mind, and your state of mind can affect your body. So next time you’re tempted to ditch your workout because you’re feeling down-in-the-dumps, remember that fitness isn’t all about the physique, it can make you feel good too!