The changes in brain chemical patterns brought about by exercise actually make it just as effective as taking antidepressant drugs to treat depression. According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 1999, people who used aerobic exercise to fight depression experienced just the same success rates as those who took antidepressants or a combination of both. Those who continued regular exercise, according to a follow-up study conducted after 6 months, had a lower risk of relapsing into another depressive state.
A separate study presented at an American College of Sports Medicine annual meeting showed that weight training or bicycle riding for 6 weeks can help alleviate the symptoms of anxiety disorder in women who were diagnosed with it. More similar reports confirm the effect of exercise on our cognitive well-being. A survey conducted by Norwegian researchers found that even the smallest amount of exercise—like a short walk everyday—can improve one’s state of mental health.
Feeling low and depressed lately? Maybe you just need to exercise! There are naturally synthesized chemicals that get released by the brain during certain situations that require them. After half an hour of focused physical activity, our body gets a cocktail dose of chemicals from the brain. These chemicals enhance the feeling of delight while suppressing discomfort and pain. It gives a feeling of “enjoyment” while training and a relatively positive disposition throughout the day. What chemicals make up this “cocktail dose”?
are natural mood enhancers that bring about feelings of satisfaction and optimism. The hypothalamus—the pea-sized part of the brain in charge of calling out certain hormones—summons the production of endorphins. The endorphins released bind with the brain’s special receptor cells called “opioid receptors” to produce a feeling of euphoria and block transmission of pain signals. In effect, pain is reduced, your body is relaxed, and your immune system is strengthened. Endorphins released during exercise technically work to cancel out the tension and stress.
is the neurotransmitter responsible for regulating your sleeping and waking cycles, your appetite, mood, and libido. It strongly influences sensations of pleasure; so, the absence of serotonin is linked to feelings of sadness and depression while the presence of it results in feelings of exhilaration and joy.
is another brain chemical that helps you decipher the effects of different stimuli. It helps your brain associate the pleasure you’re feeling (because of the serotonin that’s being released) with the physical activity you are performing. In effect, your body knows that it feels good to exercise and you will be more encouraged to keep at it so that you can experience the same amount of pleasure again… much like a type of addiction, really—but of a good kind!
Apart from inducing production of “happy” hormones, exercise can also affect other aspects of the human body that eventually affect one’s mental state:
Exercise makes you create more antibodies.
Exercise has been found to boost production of antibodies by as much as 300 percent. Antibodies are a type of protein the immune system produces to hunt down unwanted “antigens”—bacteria or viruses that attempt to invade our system. What antibodies do is attach themselves to these antigens so that our very own “killer cells” known as T-cells can destroy them.
Antibodies that were produced to attack to a particular antigen stick around in our systems so that in case they show up again, our body is ready to defend itself. This is how we develop “immunity” against certain diseases like chicken pox.
If you exercise, your immune system is stronger. If your immune system is in tip-top shape, you have a better chance at keeping away from illnesses, from the common cold to the more serious, highly contagious diseases. If you’re healthy, you most likely are free from pain and discomfort—big factors that affect one’s mood and temperament.
But of course, remember to incorporate ample time for rest in between vigorous exercise just so your body can recuperate and repair itself.
Exercise can relieve tension and anxiety.
Apart from keeping cortisol and adrenaline levels low, exercise sessions can also take your mind out of your daily worries. It is quite challenging to think about your problems at work while concentrating on doing your next push-up, so most likely you will tune out from the more complicated thoughts and just focus on the task at hand.
You can think of your 30-minute gym visit as your mini-vacation away from your stressful job. Imagine not having to check emails, answer your phone, or even think of anything related to it for a full half hour! That alone may already lower your anxiety level and keep stress-related illnesses away.
Exercise can make you sleep soundly at night.
Actually, it depends on the circumstances, the type, and duration of exercise. Exercise can immediately help the drowsy worker keep alert. Properly timed exercise can help you get drowsy right in time for bed. Studies show that having more physical activity can help address sleep disorders like insomnia because the mere act of moving can tire your entire body out (so you’ll most likely just fall asleep as soon as you get comfortable in bed).
Exercise also lowers production of insomnia-inducing stress hormones.
Exercise improves your self-esteem.
When you exercise regularly, you not only feel good—your physical appearance also follows shortly. You lose weight, show more muscles, and get a flatter tummy. You start to fit into slimmer clothes and you get to be fashionable again. Every positive step you take to improve yourself in effect gives you a feeling of control over your life. You become more confident and feel successful. You have a bright outlook on life and feel more optimistic about tomorrow.
Exercise helps keep you generally healthy. Would you be ecstatic if you knew you had diabetes, hypertension or heart disease? I didn’t think so. By being generally healthy, you won’t have to contend with so many restrictions in food or activity. No wheelchairs or heart monitors strapped on to you, no need to drink maintenance medication every morning.
Note, however, that poor exercise habits are not the only risk factor that needs to be addressed to be generally healthy. Not everyone is suited for certain types of exercise. For example, people with arthritis need to avoid high-impact exercises. People with certain heart ailments need to avoid some types of exercise.