One of the most common questions I get asked is "What can I do to quickly improve my mental health?" I tell my clients that achieving everyday happiness is like any other behavior change, it takes motivation, time, and repeated effort. Quick fixes don't usually work when it comes to your behavior or your body. However, you can achieve an instant mood boost and strengthen your brain power pretty quickly by doing one thing...exercising!
"Your brain doesn't like being idle; it comes with a body and wants to use it" - Alex Korb, PhD
I love this quote by Alex Korb (neuroscientist and author of one of my favorite books The Upward Spiral) because it so simply explains why exercise is essential for your mental health. According to Alex, the mental health benefits of exercise are so powerful they are comparable to, and in some cases more effective than, anti-anxiety and anti-depressive medications. When my clients ask me how to instantly improve their mental health, my number one tip is to move more! I can honestly say that exercise has inspired my greatest ideas and is one of my most powerful secret weapons for instantly improving my mental health. Exercise decreases anxiety and depression, increases confidence, reduces stress, helps motivate you to eat healthy, increases productivity, prevents cognitive decline, sharpens your memory, and improves your overall quality of life. Developing a consistent exercise routine truly is one of the best lifestyle changes you can make to strengthen your mind and body for a lifetime. Still not convinced? Read more about the science-backed ways exercise strengthens your mind.
The Mental Health Benefits of Exercise
1) Improves Memory & Learning
Exercise makes your brain bigger and stronger. Several studies in animals and humans have demonstrated that exercise increases the number of new neurons in the brain, a process known as neurogenesis. Physical activity increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a growth factor that stimulates neuron growth and protects against neuron degeneration. The current research suggests that neurogenesis increases brain volume, and improves learning and memory. Declining neurogenesis may also be implicated in the development of certain mental illnesses, including Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, and depression.
2) is a Natural Anti-Depressant
Scientists have yet to understand the specific causes of depression, but have identified several neurotransmitters that are involved in the development of the of the disease. Neurotransmitters are natural chemical messengers that are responsible for transmitting messages to neurons and to other tissues in the body. Serotonin is a powerful neurotransmitter that is targeted in most anti-depressant medications (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors or SSRIs) because of its ability to improve motivation, willpower, and mood. Exercise (and any general movement in your body) increases the release of serotonin, having a natural anti-depressive effect on the brain. Serotonin also has the added bonus of stimulating the production of BDNF and thus neurogenesis! So, moving your body (walking, cleaning your house, stretching, or participating in organized physical activity) can make you feel more motivated and joyful without any negative side effects.
3) Increases Concentration
Difficulty with decision making and concentrating is both a symptom of depression and a cause of anxiety. Thankfully, exercise is a great way to sharpen your concentration so decision making is easier and less anxiety-provoking. Deep thinking and concentration are functions of the brain's norepinephrine system. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter involved in the body's stress response that has several functions, including enhancing concentration and focus. Some antidepressant medications also target the norepinephrine system. Exercise also increases the release of norepinephrine, especially intense physical activity. So the next time you are feeling indecisive or scatter-brained, treat yourself to an intense workout and you will find your mind is crystal clear afterward.
4) Reduces Pain and Anxiety
Ever wonder where the term "runner's high" came from? Believe it or not, physical activity causes your brain to release the same neurotransmitters that are responsible for the "high" sensation felt with opiate and marijuana use. These neurotransmitters are called endorphins, which have the powerful effect of reducing pain and relieving anxiety. Endorphin release also increases with the intensity of exercise, so the more you sweat the happier (or higher) you feel. Physical activity also activates the endocannabinoid system (a naturally occurring neurotransmitter named after cannabis), which further reduces pain sensitivity and provides an improved sense of well-being.
Recommended Reading: 6 Simple Strategies for Decreasing Anxiety
5) Decreases Stress Hormones
Working out is one of the most useful and effective tools for managing stress. The mood boosting benefits of exercise help to manage stress by putting you in a positive and clear headspace to problem solve effectively. Exercise also has a physiological impact on stress and actually decreases several stress response hormones in the body (cortisol and adrenaline). Stress response hormones can be harmful to your long term health because they increase blood pressure, slow digestion, impair immunity, and increase blood sugar. The next time you are feeling stressed, go for walk and notice the instant effect movement has on calming your mind and body.
6) Helps with Addiction
Dopamine is the brain's primary neurotransmitter involved in addiction. The brain releases dopamine in response to a pleasurable stimulus. Addictive substances (and also certain foods and behaviors) cause a quick and intense release of dopamine into the brain, and repeated exposure to that substance, food, or behavior can eventually cause a physiological addiction. Studies have found that just 10 minutes of physical activity can significantly alter dopamine circuits and increase your willpower to avoid addictive substances, foods, and behaviors. Now that's impressive!
I know first hand that sticking with a consistent exercise routine can be a challenge! Just like any other behavior change, it takes time, motivation, and support to reach your fitness goals. Try something new and work with me, a Registered Dietitian/Nutritionist and behavior change expert, to finally achieve your health goals. Contact me HERE to find out more about the All Great Nutrition coaching program and sign up for your free 15-minute consultation.
I've also included free guidelines on staying consistent with your workout routine in the March Monthly Newsletter. Sign up below and get exclusive access to these super helpful tips!
Have you guys experienced the mental health benefits of exercise? Share your success stories, biggest motivation, and any strategies you have for staying consistent with your fitness routine in the comment section!
Author: Tamar Samuels MS, RDN, CDN
Tamar Samuels is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist and the founder of All Great Nutrition, an unconventional nutrition and health coaching service for anyone who wants to transform their lives to become their happiest and healthiest self. Tamar's nutrition and health coaching program helps you develop sustainable self-care behaviors that nourish your body and mind for a lifetime. Through her personalized and holistic approach, you will finally achieve your greatest wellness goals...on your terms! When she's not working with awesome people like you, she loves lounging in her Brooklyn, New York apartment with her lazy dog Shiloh.