Exercise is a great way to keep yourself healthy. It can help increase bone and muscle strength and manage blood sugar levels.
However, exercise also has the potential to work wonders for your mind and mental health. Being physically active has been linked to benefits such as improved memory and reduced anxiety.
Here’s more about working out and its connection to mental health.
Mental health relates to how a person copes with life (e.g., how they behave). Changes in mental health can also affect how a person thinks, what they remember, and what emotions they have.
One brain-related area that can be affected by exercise is cognition. Cognition includes brain processes that help you talk and learn.
The authors of a Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise looked at the links between being active and the brain. They reviewed several articles, including data from people of different ages with conditions like attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), type 2 diabetes, and stroke.
The review revealed that more physical activity and reduced risk of cognitive issues were related. Researchers also found a connection between intense exercise and improved cognition on performance-based tests (e.g., for academic achievement).
Another part of cognition—memory—can benefit from exercise too. Doing exercise for different amounts of time can benefit short- or long-term memory and the information a person can remember.
“When you exercise, your body pumps out a wide range of neurochemicals, including growth factors that stimulate the birth of brand-new brain cells in the hippocampus. That’s the area of the brain critical for storing long-term memories,” Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., professor of neural science and psychology at New York University’s Center for Neural Science, told Health.
Just one session of exercise can improve your mood, said Suzuki. Each time we exercise, it pushes our brain to release chemicals like serotonin (which regulates mood, sleep, and hunger) and our natural mood lifters, endorphins.
Research also shows that exercise can improve the quality and length of sleep, which is good for mental health and mood. Cumulative exercise can even permanently change the structure and function of our brains for the better, said Suzuki.
“The good news is that we can do an easy self-experimentation to decide which type of movement puts us in the best mood,” added Suzuki. “For some, it will be dancing to a favorite song in the living room; for others, it will be a five-mile run in nature.”
Certain types of exercises can be helpful for different aspects of mental health.
Researchers concluded in a review that aerobic exercise could help with anxiety. They added that high-intensity exercises could be more helpful in reducing anxiety, though more evidence would be needed. Also, people who were more anxious could benefit from aerobic exercise, even if they weren’t diagnosed with an anxiety disorder.
Aerobic exercise specifically plays a significant role in your memory, said Suzuki. Aerobic exercise can potentially improve memory for adults who don’t have cognitive problems but aren’t active.
Another study showed significant changes in memory for participants who did aerobic exercises for a year compared to participants who did stretching exercises for the same length of time. Aerobics were shown to increase blood flow to the hippocampus, which may help protect against memory loss for those at risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Along with aerobic exercises, resistance training has also been linked with improved mood. The authors of a Frontiers in Psychology study found that less intense resistance exercises were most effective in decreasing anxiety. Another study said that this type of training might help with lowering symptoms of depression.
Exercises for flexibility—like stretching or yoga—can be good for your mood. Flexibility exercises have been associated with lower stress levels for women, according to a Journal of Exercise Rehabilitation study.
People aged 65 and older also benefitted from doing exercises like stretching and yoga. Compared to those who did not exercise, those who did the exercises for one to four days had an 81% lower risk of experiencing depression. Also, people in the study who did flexibility exercises for five or more days had a 66% lower risk than those who did none.
Exercise is great for both physical and mental health. A person may experience changes in their mental health, which in turn can affect cognition, memory, and mood.
Still, some types of physical activity can help improve those three areas for overall better mental health. For example, resistance training has been shown to reduce anxiety or depression.
But if you have or continue to have issues related to mental health, talk with a healthcare provider or a mental health professional.