Have you ever noticed that after going for a brisk walk or participating in your favorite exercise routine, you feel happier, more alert, and energized? You’re not the only one! Research shows that exercise has positive effects on brain health, mental health, and memory. (1) Keep reading to learn more about how exercise impacts mental health and brain health.

Exercise and mental health: What does the research say?

Exercise can improve outcomes for individuals with brain and mental health conditions, benefit mood and self-esteem, and support the body’s stress response. (9)

How does exercise affect mental health?

Researchers continue to study the relationship between exercise and positive mental health outcomes. In a 2019 review of the effects of physical activity on neurological and mental disorders, the World Health Organization highlighted possible psychological and biological factors. (20)

Specifically, incorporating exercise into your routine may increase:

  • Self-confidence
  • Self-control
  • Stress resistance (20)

Exercise also facilitates neurogenesis (i.e., new neurons are created) in the brain and increases the production of serotonin and dopamine, important neurotransmitters that may be low in individuals with certain mental health conditions. (20)

Can exercise change the brain?

Research shows that exercise can change the way the brain functions, has positive effects on memory, and may lower the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease. (1)(30)

These effects on brain function may be attributed to neuroplasticity, a process in which the nervous system adapts to stimuli in an individual’s environment and forms new neural connections in the brain. (23)

For example, a study from the journal Neurobiology of Learning and Memory found that aerobic exercise in older adults resulted in an increase in “flexibility” in the medial temporal lobe (MTL), one of the areas of the brain that is important for long-term memory and is affected during the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. These results suggest that exercise can help unconnected parts of the MTL that are important for memory to begin interacting in new ways. (30)

 

Elderly man and woman exercising
Aerobic exercise may improve long-term memory outcomes for older adults.

 

Exercise for mental health and brain health: the benefits

Exercise and physical activity may benefit memory and improve mental health and brain health outcomes for individuals with anxiety and depression.

Exercise for anxiety

Exercise has a positive impact on several psychological and biological mechanisms, and may be associated with reduced feelings of anxiety. (1)

Anxiety disorders are characterized by feelings of fear or distress that is out of proportion with the situation, seriously impacting an individual’s behavior, thoughts, and physical and emotional health. (16) It’s possible to feel anxious in response to a real event and not have an anxiety disorder. (16) There are different types of anxiety disorders, including:

  • Generalized anxiety disorder
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Panic disorder
  • Phobias
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (16)

Studies have examined the potential impact that exercise has on different body systems that affect mood such as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, the opioid system, and the monoamine system.

The HPA axis is a neuroendocrine system that helps control the body’s stress response and dysregulation of the HPA axis has been associated with anxiety symptoms. (12)(31) Studies have found that exercise can help modulate the HPA axis’ reactivity to stress and anxiety. (1)

The opioid system is located in the central and peripheral nervous systems, and its peptides and receptors play a role in the modulation of anxiety, stress, pain, reward, and autonomic control. (7)(5) Animal research in rats has found that beta-endorphins (opioid neuropeptides that play important roles in mood regulation) bind to receptors in the brain and lead to pain reduction and feelings of euphoria following exercise. (1)(13) In humans, the endocannabinoid system and endocannabinoids, another class of molecules that help regulate mood, may induce feelings of euphoria following exercise. (29)

Studies have also found that regular aerobic exercise increases serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. (1)(20) Serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are chemical substances known as neurotransmitters that make up the monoamine system and help mediate physiological and homeostatic functions including mood. Irregularities in monoamine system function have been associated with anxiety. (1)

Did you know? It is estimated that one in ten Canadians is affected by an anxiety disorder. (16)

In addition to the physiological changes mentioned above, exercise has been found to reduce anxiety sensitivity and exposure, improve confidence in managing threats, and provide a distraction or break from regular stressors. (1)

Because exercise exposes individuals with anxiety to physiological reactions that are similar to anxiety (e.g., increased heart rate), it’s hypothesized that it increases an individual’s tolerance and helps them view these symptoms as less of a threat. (1)

Research also suggests that an individual who exercises regularly may experience feelings of self-efficacy and self-mastery following improved fitness, with less pain and greater endurance. (1) Self-efficacy refers to one’s ability to exert control over potential threats and is another reason why exercise may be effective in reducing anxiety. Those with high self-efficacy trust their ability to handle possible threats and are not deeply affected by worry and anxiety. (1)

Another hypothesis explaining the anxiety-reducing effects of exercise involves distraction. By taking time out to exercise, a person is distracted from the stressors of everyday life which may otherwise generate feelings of anxiety. (1)

Exercise for depression and mood

Researchers have identified a relationship between physical exercise and a reduced severity of depression symptoms. (8)(9)

Depression (major depressive disorder) is a mood disorder that causes symptoms that negatively impact how you feel and handle daily activities. There are different kinds of depression including postpartum depression, bipolar disorder, seasonal affective disorder, persistent depressive disorder, and psychotic depression. In order to be diagnosed with major depressive disorder, symptoms must persist for two or more weeks. (10) Some of the signs and symptoms include:

  • Appetite and/or weight changes
  • Early awakening, difficulty sleeping, or oversleeping
  • Fatigue
  • Guilt or worthlessness
  • Hopelessness or pessimism
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies and activities
  • Sad, anxious, or “empty” mood

Although the exact mechanisms for the antidepressant effects of exercise are unclear, several of the ones mentioned above (i.e., opioid system, the monoamine system, distraction, and self-efficacy) are possible. (9)

Exercise has also been associated with changes in certain markers, such as hormones, inflammatory markers, and neurotrophins, a group of substances that support neuron function and development. These changes may be associated with the antidepressant effects of exercise; however, further research is needed. (27)

Exercise for memory

Research shows that physical activity and exercise can benefit your memory by facilitating neuroplasticity in different areas of the brain including the hippocampus, an area of the brain that stores long-term memories. (18)

In rodents, exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) expression in the hippocampus and may help improve memory. BDNF, a member of the neurotrophin family of growth factors synthesized in the brain, helps regulate neurogenesis. (3)(22)

In a randomized controlled trial, 120 older adults without dementia were assigned to either a moderate intensity aerobic exercise group or to a stretching control group. Using magnetic resonance imaging, after one year, the aerobic exercise group showed a 2.12% and 1.97% increase in left and right hippocampus volume, respectively, whereas the stretching control group showed a 1.40% and 1.43% decline. These results suggest that the size of the hippocampus is modifiable in late adulthood and that aerobic exercise improves spatial memory, is neuroprotective, and may prevent cognitive decline. (11)

Another study looked at semantic memory activation (conceptual knowledge about the world) (6) following acute aerobic exercise. It found that after one single session of exercise, semantic memory activation was significantly greater in the middle frontal, inferior temporal, middle temporal, and fusiform gyri areas of the brain. (32)

The best exercises for mental health and brain health

Different kinds of exercises have been studied for their positive effects on brain health and mental health, including aerobic, anaerobic (i.e., resistance training), and exercise that incorporates mindfulness like yoga.

While further research is needed to make a definitive or standardized recommendation for the type of exercise routine that will lead to decreased anxiety or better memory, studies show that exercising regularly is of particular importance. Moreover, studies have found some specific benefits of each type of exercise.

Aerobic exercise for mental health

Aerobic exercise has been found to have a positive impact on memory, cognition, and mental health outcomes. The American College of Sports Medicine defines aerobic exercise as an activity that is rhythmic, can be maintained continuously, and uses large muscle groups. Examples of aerobic exercise include swimming, biking, jogging, hiking, and skiing. (24)

 

3 women exercising
Regular aerobic exercise in a group setting may be helpful for individuals with depression.

 

For individuals with depression, regular aerobic exercise three days per week at a moderate intensity (60 to 80% max heart rate) may significantly reduce symptoms of depression. (9) The frequency of exercise may be more important than duration or intensity. (9) There is also evidence to suggest that results may be better if the individual starts slow, enjoys and chooses the type of aerobic exercise, participates in a group, and is supervised by an instructor. (2)(4)

Both regular and acute aerobic exercise at moderate intensity may facilitate neuroplasticity and positively affect memory. (6)(11) Similarly, regular aerobic exercise may help alleviate symptoms of anxiety. (1)

Resistance training exercise for mental health

Studies in humans and animals have examined the relationship between anaerobic forms of exercise, such as weight training, and mental and brain health.

Weight training is an activity in which weights are used to overload skeletal muscles progressively in order to increase their strength and to cause hypertrophy. (25) Although further research is needed to determine the optimal frequency, intensity, and duration of weight training required to improve mental and brain health, strength training may be beneficial for brain health (19) and to those with anxiety (15) and depression. (14)

Yoga exercise for mental health

Yoga is a practice that supports physical and mental health and may help alleviate feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. (28) In the United States and Canada, yoga typically incorporates physical postures, breathing techniques, and meditation. (33)

Further controlled studies are needed to determine if and how yoga may improve mental health outcomes; however, research has found that engaging in a regular yoga practice, such as 60 minutes of yoga, three days per week, can reduce feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression. (17)(28)

Tips to stay on track with an exercise routine

If exercise and physical activity can support our mental health and brain health, the decision to follow an exercise routine seems easy. However, if we aren’t feeling optimal mentally, it can be difficult to feel motivated to start or stick to an exercise routine.

Consider some of the following tips when beginning or maintaining an exercise routine.

Get support

Consult with your healthcare practitioner before starting a new exercise routine. They can offer ideas about what type of exercise might suit your needs, the pace at which to begin, and support and encouragement along the way!

Do you have a friend or family member with a similar fitness level? Consider pairing up with them for regular workouts! Having a partner to work out with can help motivate you, keep you accountable, and strengthen your existing social connections. (26)

Keep it simple

Exercise at a time that is convenient to you and gives you the necessary amount of time to finish your workout routine. For some, this is the first thing in the morning, while for others, it’s during lunch or after work.

Mobile apps can help to reduce barriers to exercising and encourage self-efficacy. (21) Try using an app or other available resources that make exercising simple, such as:

  • Fitness groups (e.g., walking, hiking or biking)
  • Fitness tracking devices (e.g., Apple Watch, Fitbit)
  • In-person fitness classes
  • Online workout videos

Set goals

Setting a realistic exercise goal for yourself can be a great motivator. Set small, measurable goals that are attainable and consider applying the SMART goal-setting principles.

For help getting started, download a handout on goal-setting strategies.

Eat well and stay hydrated

Staying hydrated and eating nutrient-dense food is important as it provides the energy necessary to exercise effectively and recover post-workout. Nutritional supplements can also be beneficial in these areas.

For more information on what to eat pre- and post-workout, check out the Fullscript blog.

Enjoy yourself

Perhaps you enjoy hiking in nature with friends, shooting hoops at the local basketball court with your child, or swimming laps solo—choosing a type of exercise that you enjoy will encourage you to stay motivated and on track.

Whatever type of exercise you choose, make sure that you feel good doing it and you’re having some fun along the way!

The bottom line

Exercise may improve psychological outcomes and biological markers for those with mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression, as well as benefit memory. Aerobic exercise, resistance training, and yoga have been found to improve specific aspects of mental health. Exercising regularly may be the most important factor involved in experiencing these benefits. If you’re a patient, speak with your integrative healthcare practitioner about the best approach before beginning a new exercise routine.

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