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Working out for mental health

Five science-backed ways exercise can have a positive effect on the mind

If you often find yourself feeling stressed, anxious or overwhelmed, you’re not alone. According to the Mental Health Foundation, almost three-quarters (74%) of people have felt so stressed they’ve been unable to cope.

The demands of modern life can often leave us feeling this way and so, understandably, the quest for mental well-being has become more pertinent than ever. While therapy and medication have long been a more conventional approach, a slew of research suggests that exercise can also be a powerful tool for keeping our mental health in check or, at least, a positive coping strategy for difficult times.

Beyond its obvious physical benefits, exercise has the potential to profoundly impact our minds and emotions, offering a holistic approach to achieving and maintaining mental well- being. But how?

Here are five science-backed ways exercise can have a positive effect on the mind, shedding light on the intimate connection between physical activity and mental wellness.

1. Making neurochemical magic

One of the most well-known benefits of exercise for mental health lies in its ability to trigger the release of endorphins – those "feel-good" hormones. According to health professionals, these natural chemicals help ease anxiety and symptoms of depression.

But beyond endorphins, research by the Center for Neural Science at New York University has shown that exercise can also have a broader neurochemical impact, promoting the release of neurotransmitters like serotonin and dopamine. These chemicals play vital roles in giving your mood and emotions a positive boost. The researchers found that engaging in regular physical activity can help stabilise these neurotransmitters, leading to improved mood, reduced anxiety, and enhanced emotional resilience.

2. Relieving stress and regulating cortisol

Stress has become an unwelcome companion for many, especially in today’s fast-paced world. The issue with stress is that the body’s response to it involves the release of cortisol, a hormone that - when chronically elevated - can contribute to anxiety and depression.

According to Harvard Medical School, exercise has a unique capacity to “exhilarate and relax, to provide stimulation and calm, to counter depression and dissipate stress”. This is down to its ability to act as a natural stress reliever by reducing cortisol levels, helping to create a healthier stress response.

Whether it's a quick walk, a 30-min yoga session, or a heart-pounding run, physical activity helps the body process stress more effectively, allowing the mind to find calm and clarity.

3. Fostering mindfulness

Mindfulness, the ability to be fully present and in the moment, is a great pacifier when it comes to mental health as it helps people let go of worries about the past or future. Since exercise requires focus and concentration, it can serve as a gateway to mindfulness.

According to research by the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, people become less reactive to unpleasant internal thoughts during exercise, and more reflective - freeing you from the grip of anxious thoughts. This conjures a heightened awareness of the body and its movements, fostering a better connection between the mind and body, which scientists say will only lead to positive psychological outcomes long term.

4. Improving sleep quality and circadian rhythms

Sleep and mental health have a mutually beneficial relationship. Poor sleep can exacerbate mental health issues, and on the other hand, mental health challenges can lead to sleep disturbances.

However, according to a study by the Institute of Biology at Martin Luther University in Germany, regular exercise can aid in falling asleep faster, improving sleep quality, and maintaining a consistent sleep schedule. This is thanks to its ability to regulate circadian rhythms, the body's internal clock that governs sleep-wake cycles. The researchers found that adequate restorative sleep can, in turn, have a positive effect on mental health as it supports emotional well-being and cognitive function.

5. Boosting cognitive ability and brain plasticity

Exercise is not only a boon for the body but also for the brain. Research conducted by the University of Minnesota claims that physical activity stimulates the growth of new neurons, which helps to enhance synaptic plasticity. This refers to the brain's ability to adjust the strength of connections between neurons, which is crucial for learning.

These neurobiological changes can result in improved cognitive function, including sharper memory, increased creativity, and enhanced problem-solving skills.

Regular exercise has also been linked to a reduced risk of cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases, further highlighting its role in supporting mental health.

The link between exercise and mental health is undeniable. Beyond its physical benefits, exercise offers a plethora of mental and emotional advantages. From neurochemical boosts to stress reduction, fostering mindfulness to enhancing cognitive function, the positive effects of exercise on the mind are extensive, to say the least.

So, whether it’s a low-key jog around the block or an hour-long HIIT class, incorporating regular physical activity into your routine can be a transformative step towards a better and healthier state of mind.