It has been shown many times that exercise is a very good happiness-booster (some call it an anti-depressant). In fact, studies on rats indicate that exercise mimics the effects of antidepressants on the brain.
You probably already know that. Many clinical studies prove it (see the two articles below for some basic scientific evidence). And, if you exercise yourself, you’ve felt it first-hand.
In fact, as a physician, one of the first things I would prescribe for someone who feels “down” or “sad” (which are my transformational vocabulary words for “depressed”) is regular exercise (and preferably vigorous exercise if appropriate).
Why? Because the brain and the body are connected, and when we exercise regularly, we optimize our metabolism, regulate stress hormones like cortisol, and promote the release of endorphins (morphine-like substances that our bodies naturally release when we exercise). Even just 30 minutes of walking can help (see the article called Depressed? Take a Hike).
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The Mental Benefits of Exercise
Aside from the obvious and abundant physical benefits of regular exercise, there are many mental and psychological benefits as well.
Many people already know this.
Exercise increases concentrations of norepinephrine, a chemical that can moderate the brain's response to stress.
On a very basic level, physical fitness can boost self-esteem and improve positive self-image. Regardless of weight, size, gender or age, exercise can quickly elevate a person's perception of his or her attractiveness, that is, self-worth. Exercising outdoors can increase self-esteem even more.
Here are just some of the well-known, proven happiness-building effects of exercise:
It reverses the detrimental effects of stress.
Jumping on the treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes can blow off tension by increasing levels of "soothing" brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. What's fascinating, though, is that exercise may actually work on a cellular level to reverse stress's toll on our aging process, according to a 2010 study from the University of California—San Francisco. The researchers found that stressed-out women who exercised vigorously for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and inactive. Working out also helps keep us from ruminating "by altering blood flow to those areas in the brain involved in triggering us to relive these stressful thoughts again and again," says study coauthor Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF.
Exercise reduces depression.
Research suggests that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. That may be because exercise appears to stimulate the growth of neurons in certain brain regions damaged by depression. What's more, animal studies have found that getting active boosts the production of brain molecules that improve connections between nerve cells, thereby acting as a natural antidepressant. And a 2010 study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants' levels of the brain chemical GABA, which typically translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety. Yoga can be used to complement—not substitute—drug treatment for depression, the researchers said.
Exercise improves learning ability.
Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn. Interestingly, complicated activities, like playing tennis or taking a dance class, provide the biggest brain boost. "You're challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination," explains Ratey. "Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to grow." Complicated activities also improve our capacity to learn by enhancing our attention and concentration skills, according to German researchers who found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after doing 10 minutes of a complicated fitness routine compared to 10 minutes of regular activity. (Those who hadn't exercised at all scored the worst.)
Exercise builds self-esteem and improves body image.
You don't need to radically change your body shape to get a confidence surge from exercise. Studies suggest that simply seeing fitness improvements, like running a faster mile or lifting more weight than before, can improve your self-esteem and body image.
Exercise leaves you feeling euphoric.
Yes, that "runner's high" really does exist if you're willing to shift into high-intensity mode. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training. Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. "You'll feel really sparkly for the rest of the day," he says.
Exercise keeps the brain fit.
Even mild activity like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong. In a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Canadian researchers analyzed the energy expenditure and cognitive functioning of elderly adults over the course of two to five years. Most of the participants did not work out; their activities revolved around short walks, cooking, gardening, and cleaning. Still, compared with their sedentary peers, the most active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function, and they showed the least amount of cognitive decline. By the study's end, roughly 90 percent of them could think and remember just as well as they could when the study began.
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