If you follow Physio on a Roll on Instagram you may have seen my post last week about exercise and mental health. If you missed it, I shared that the weekend marked 13 years since my first husband, tragically and unexpectedly passed away. Last week we would have also celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary and 29 years since we first met. All those milestones within a day or two of each other were tough. 13 years ago it was even harder and at times, even though I had magnificent help from my friends, I was overwhelmed by loss and grief. Exercise, particularly running, was and still is, my saviour. Why? Its powerful effects on improving my mood, clearing my head and organising my thoughts so that I just end up feeling better. Here is what the research says-
- Several studies have found that exercise increases the amount of both serotonin and dopamine in the blood stream. Serotonin and dopamine are both chemical messengers (or neurotransmitters). Serotonin promotes feelings of well being and happiness and improves sleep and appetite. Dopamine is critical in regulating motivation, memory, reward and attention.
- Exercise has potent effects on a range of other neuro-chemicals as well. Researchers suspect that much of the mood-boosting power of exercise is due to its effect on endorphins and other neuro-modulators involved in the endogenous opioid system. The opioid system is important in pain modulation, reward, response to stress and autonomic control (ie the flight or fight response). In both humans and animals, such natural opioids are increased in the blood after exercise.
- More recent research has uncovered an important role for endocannabinoids. This family of lipids — which activate the same receptors as the THC in marijuana does — are also increased in the blood after exercise.
Flight or fight response
- Exercise also increases the amount of norepinephrine (also known as noradrenaline) in the blood. Norepinephrine helps mobilise the brain for action. This means that it can deal with stress more efficiently and improve attentiveness.
- As exercise is a form of physical stress it gives the body practice at managing general stress levels. This makes us more resilient. How? The body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise as it does when we feel threatened. Research shows that while exercise initially spikes the stress response in the body, you then experience lower levels of the stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (adrenaline) after exercise. This "priming" to stress protects the body from the negative physiological effects of future stressors.
- Regular workouts may then help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when they experience those fight-or-flight sensations. Exercise in this sense becomes an exposure treatment, helping people learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.
Buffering the brain
- Another theory suggests that exercise helps by normalising sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain. Recent findings suggest that sleep plays a housekeeping role in your brain, removing toxins in that build up while you are awake. (A topic for a future blog!).
- Exercise may boost a depressed person's outlook by helping him return to meaningful activity and providing a sense of accomplishment.
MotivationBut, of all the questions that remain to be answered, perhaps the most perplexing is this: If exercise makes us feel so good, why is it so difficult for some of us to do it? Sometimes people skip their workout at the very time it has the greatest payoff.
- Starting out too hard in a new exercise program may be one of the reasons people dislike physical activity. When people exercise above their respiratory threshold ie, at a level where it gets hard to talk, they postpone exercise's immediate mood boost by about 30 minutes. For someone new to exercise, that delayed gratification could turn them off the exercise bike or treadmill for good.
- Similarly we are often encouraged to exercise to lose weight, lower our blood pressure or cholesterol count. Unfortunately, it takes months before any physical results of your hard work are apparent. So we give up waiting for those physical effects to appear.