In the western world, there is this reigning misconception that the body and mind are separate and that changes in one has no significant effect one the other. The increase in scientific study following the alarming peak in mental disorders around the globe is widely coming to the conclusion that this simply isn’t so. While we’ve all heard of the ’’runner’s high’’ and that exercise has a feel good- hormone releasing effect, we are only beginning to grasp the depth of the impact regular exercise has on our brain functionality and therefore, mental health. We’ve been taught for years that regular physical exercise prevents obesity, cardiovascular diseases, osteoporosis and on some level, even cancer. Turns out that exercise has just as much significance in preventing mental disorders such as depression and dementia.
What people often fail to understand is the potential severity of the consequences of mental disorders. Depression and age- related dementia are probably two of the most widespread issues that touch hundreds of millions of people worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, over 300 million people worldwide suffer from depression. As for dementia (as a syndrome, regardless of cause), the number is 47 million and that number is estimated to triple by 2050 (WHO). As these illnesses can become crippling and depression having such a clear link to rising suicide rates (Mental Health America), it’s clear to see why so much research is aimed towards them.
What’s exciting is that ’’increasingly robust evidence’’ (as Psychology Today’s Sarah Gingell PhD puts it in a recent article) is suggesting that exercise can have a strong impact in treating chronic mental illnesses, like mild to moderate depression. Gingell also states in the article that exercise can even reduce cognitive issues in schizophrenia. All that I read yesterday while researching is starting to seem like exercise is a miracle- worker and that there’s no ailment it can’t cure. If exercise is so amazing, how exactly does it work?
Let’s go back to that ’’runner’s high’’ I mentioned in the beginning. Runner’s high is a happy, euphoric state people sometimes go into in the end of a long race for example. Runner’s high is caused by the release of certain neuropeptides called endorphines and enkephalins. Those are the ’’feelgood hormones’’ you might’ve heard of before. Those chemical compounds are actually classified as endogenic opioids, the natural ’’cousins’’ of heroine, morphine, fentanyl and methadone. These compounds act as pain relievers by blocking sensory receptors. The release of these natural opioids during exercise can help us view our worries and problems as more manageable. In addition to this biochemical aspect, focusing on exercise can offer a break from other current concerns as well as help calm us down or energize us.
An Australian study that was published in the American Journal of Psychiatry found that regular exercise can reduce the likelihood of depression significantly. The study followed over 22,000 healthy Norwegians for 11 years on average. It was found that the people that didn’t exercise at all at the beginning of the study were 44% more likely to develop depression compared to those who exercised at least 1 to 2 hours a week. Of course, one study isn’t enough to prove a cause and effect link between these two things but it does strongly suggest one. As the authors report that they found no significance in the intensity of exercising required to achieve the found benefits, regular exercise should be considered just as important to public mental health as it is to public health in general.
Another study conducted in the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise helped increase the volume of a region in the brain connected with memory, learning and emotional regulation, the hippocampus. This can have an impact on preventing dementia. Interestingly, resistance training was not found to have the same effect. It seems that exercise that gets your heart and sweat glands pumping and respiration going is key when it comes to brain function. This is probably due to the increase of blood flow and therefore, the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain. Exercise also increases the presence of neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signaling, growth and the forming of connections. A collaboration between Australia’s National Institute of Complementary Medicine and the Division of Psychology and Mental Health at the University of Manchester (UK) points to the same direction (study). As many mental disorders have been connected to reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus, this information is precious.
According to an article from Harvard Medical School’s Harvard Health Publishing, exercise positively affects brain function directly and indirectly. Direct effects include the reduction of insulin resistance, inflammation and the release of various growth factors. Indirect effects cover the improvement of mood and sleep as well as reduction of stress and anxiety.
As mental disorders are a complex and diverse group of ailments that those suffering of experience differently, it must not be assumed that the same treatments are going to help everyone equally. However, it does seem like exercise and an active lifestyle overall is generally in key position in preventing these problems. While we must push for more effective ways to help those already suffering, it equally important to look into ways of preventing these diseases from occurring in the first place. It’s in the best interest of hundreds of millions of people worldwide. Several studies suggest regular exercise as help in battling so many physical and mental disorders and symptoms that as a society, we should absolutely work to positively encourage everyone to try to live at least a little bit more actively and more importantly, to teach that mentality to our future generations.