When you hit the pavement for a run or head to the gym to squeeze in a workout, you probably have a physical goal in mind. Maybe it’s those toned upper arms for tank top season, or rock-hard abs to show off at the beach.
But did you know that exercise is hugely beneficial for your brain, too?
The mind + body connection is a powerful one. Research has shown that exercise like jogging, swimming, cycling and running have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression. Plus, exercise improves mental health by bolstering self-esteem and cognitive function.
So how does it work?
The science behind the mind + body connection
When your heart starts to pump during a workout, you’re increasing the blood circulation to your brain as well. That regular aerobic exercise appears to boost the size of your hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in memory and learning.
Exercise also results in an increase in neurotransmitters in the brain, specifically serotonin (the neurotransmitter targeted by antidepressants) and norepinephrine, both of which boost information processing and mood. Another theory suggests that exercise helps normalize sleep, which is known to have protective effects on the brain.
Those changes happen over time, but researchers have seen even short-term benefits among people prone to anxiety. Regular workouts may help people become less likely to panic when they experience fight-or-flight sensations. It makes sense, since the physical reaction to an anxiety attack—like heavy perspiration and increased heart rate—mimics the natural reactions produced by exercise.
What exercise is best for my brain?
The jury is still out on this one. Most mental health-related studies have focused on aerobic exercise (read: heart pumping, sweating and out of breath), while practices like yoga and tai chi present many benefits but have not been as thoroughly studied.
Experts encourage us to think outside the box. Team sports and gym classes have been shown to provide even greater benefits than running or walking. People who played team sports like soccer and basketball reported 22.3% fewer poor mental-health days than those who didn’t exercise. Those who ran or jogged fared 19% better, while those who did household chores 11.8% better.
Team sports provide an extra layer of social interaction and accountability, which yield even more mood-boosting powers.
Make exercise part of your treatment plan
If you just need a pick-me-up, or are looking at alternative ways to treat mental illnesses like anxiety or depression, exercise can be an excellent place to start. More and more psychologists today are recommending exercise as a baseline part of any treatment plan (but be sure to talk with a medical professional before making any changes).
Write down how you feel before you exercise, and compare that to your post-workout buzz. While the traditional “runner’s high” is well documented, experts say the value for most of us is in low-intensity exercise sustained over time. That kind of exercise spurs the release of proteins that cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections in the brain. Walking to work, riding your bike or even vacuuming the house can all fit the bill.
Now think back to those rock-hard abs or the toned biceps for your favorite tank top. If you put the same amount of dedication and energy into toning your brain, boosting your mood and prioritizing your mental health, wouldn’t you feel better? Get your body moving today to feel better not just physically, but mentally, too.