Updated: Oct 20
Exercise is an often overlooked but effective tool for enhancing mental well-being. Studies throughout the years have consistently shown that regular physical activity can significantly improve mental health by reducing symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. The benefits of exercise go beyond physical improvements, as it promotes the release of endorphins and chemicals that boost mood and improve our well-being.
What are the physiological effects of exercise on the brain?
Recent research demonstrates a strong link between exercise and improved mental health. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood boosters. Exercise also increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that helps in the growth of new neurons and enhances cognitive function.
A study conducted by the Harvard Medical School studied the effect of low-intensity exercise sustained over time. Their findings concluded that physical activity initiates the release of neurotrophic or growth factors, which cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. In words of Dr Miller assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. "In people who are depressed, neuroscientists have noticed that the hippocampus in the brain—the region that helps regulate mood—is smaller. Exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus, improving nerve cell connections, which helps relieve depression,"
Enhanced cognitive abilities
Physical activity also improves brain structure, function, and connectivity. It boosts neuroplasticity, leading to better learning, memory, and attention. Exercise also promotes the growth of new neurons and reduces the risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases in the long term.
Additionally it has been demonstrated that engaging in physical activities that require coordination, such as dancing or playing a sport, can enhance cognitive abilities by challenging the brain to process information quickly and accurately.
How to Incorporate exercise into your daily life
Finding an exercise routine that suits your preferences is crucial for improving mental health. The key is finding an exercise routine that you enjoy and can actually stick to. This could be anything from walking or jogging outdoors to joining a dance class or trying out different workout videos at home.
How to start, The Power of Small: Making Exercise a Lasting Habit
By finding an exercise routine that aligns with your interests and preferences, you are more likely to stay motivated and make it a regular part of your self-care routine. Starting small and gradually increasing intensity and duration is key to long-term success.
Incorporating exercise into your daily routine may feel like a daunting task, specially if you lead a sedentary lifestyle. James Clear an author, speaker, and productivity expert known for his work on habits, decision making, and continuous improvement unveils a powerful strategy that transforms this challenge into a manageable journey. The key lies in the art of starting small .Instead of overwhelming yourself with grand fitness goals, you can start your journey by embracing the power of tiny habits. For instance, commit to just five minutes of light exercise every day. It might seem insignificant, but these initial steps create the bedrock of a habit. By consistently engaging in this modest routine, you are not just exercising your body; you are rewiring your brain. This gradual approach leverages the science of habit formation, making it easier to stick to your fitness goals. With each small win, you can reinforce your commitment, gradually increasing the duration and intensity of each workout.
Remember, the journey to a healthier you begins with a single step, and that step can be as small as five minutes a day. So, start small, stay consistent, and watch these incremental changes pave the way for a healthier, happier life.
Harvard Health Publishing. (2021, February 21). Exercise is an all-natural treatment to fight depression - Harvard Health. Harvard Health; Harvard Health. https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-is-an-all-natural-treatment-to-fight-depression
Tocino-Smith, J. (2019, July 4). How Does Exercise Affect the Brain? The Neurological Benefits of Exercise. PositivePsychology.com. https://positivepsychology.com/exercise-neurological-benefits/
Clear, J. (2013, April 4). How to Start Working Out When You Don’t Know What You’re Doing. James Clear. https://jamesclear.com/start-working-out
Karamacoska, D., Butt, A., Isabella, Childs, R. L., Najwa-Joelle Metri, Vithya Uruthiran, Tan, T., Sabag, A., & Steiner-Lim, G. Z. (2023). Brain function effects of exercise interventions for cognitive decline: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Frontiers in Neuroscience, 17. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2023.1127065