Working out the Mind: Exercise and Mental Health

by Wellness Editor – MH

When people finally work up the motivation to start exercising regularly, their reasons for doing so usually have something to do with improving their physical appearance. Of course, there is nothing wrong with wanting to add muscle mass to noodle arms or other underdeveloped parts of your body. Likewise, spending hours burning off stubborn waistline fat is certainly a worthwhile goal. As great as exercise can be for the body, it can also do wonders for the mind; numerous studies have found that exercise can have a positive affect on your emotional well-being.

The Brain During Exercise

No matter what activities are included in your workout regimen, at least some part of your body is getting a workout from performing a given exercise. What you might not realize is that the brain is also directly impacted by exercise. While you’re piling up miles on the treadmill or plowing through sets on the leg press, the brain releases a steady stream of endorphins in response.

Endorphins tend to get a lot of attention, and for good reason; these oft-mentioned chemicals tend to go hand-in-hand with feelings of joy and contentment. Produced largely by the brain’s pituitary gland and hypothalamus, endorphins are classified as neurotransmitters, meaning that they are tasked with transmitting information between the brain’s neurons. Upon being released, endorphins subsequently flow towards the brain’s opioid receptors.

As their name would indicate, opioid receptors function as docking ports for opiate-like substances within the body, allowing them to influence our feelings and emotions. The presence of these receptors is somewhat of a double-edged sword; while they do provide a landing pad for endorphins, they also serve the same function for additive opiates like heroin, oxycodone and morphine. Fortunately, endorphins can stimulate positive feelings without the potent and damaging aftereffects of external opiates.

During a workout, endorphins quickly find their way to the brain’s receptors, resulting in the positive and uplifting feelings often associated with exercise. Furthermore, this burst of endorphins carries the added bonus of bolstering the body’s resistance to pain. As a result, the body is able to push its limits while exercising. The impact of both exercise and the endorphins it releases doesn’t stop once you leave the gym; research has found a solid link between exercise and reduced stress, better sleeping habits, higher self-esteem and a reduction in anxiety and depression.

A Tool Against Depression?

That last benefit noted in the preceding paragraph probably got your attention, and is worth expounding on. Depression is a major health problem in the United States; according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), depression affects nearly one in ten adult Americans. Many people with depression receive no treatment whatsoever, while others put all of their faith in antidepressant medications.

A growing body of research suggests that depression sufferers do not need to rely solely on medicine to address their problems. In fact, researchers have long been curious as the impact of exercise on depression. In 1999, a study published in the journal Archives of Internal Medicine (now known as JAMA Internal Medicine) found that regular physical activity could alleviate depression symptoms.

This particular study, which was conducted by a team of twelve researchers, involved 156 adults over the age of 30. Each participant had been previously diagnosed with depression. At the beginning of the study, these volunteers were divided into three distinct groups; one group was treated with a standard antidepressant medication, one was put on a regular exercise program and the remaining group was treated with a combination of medicine and exercise.

After sixteen weeks of observation, the research team complied and analyzed their data. The study yielded some very interesting results; for starters, each group experienced a 60 to 70 percent reduction in subjects with major depression. Additionally, the three groups exhibited strikingly similar results on two separate scales measuring depression symptoms. The conclusion written by the research team is shown below:

“An exercise training program may be considered an alternative to antidepressants for treatment of depression in older persons. Although antidepressants may facilitate a more rapid initial therapeutic response than exercise, after 16 weeks of treatment exercise was equally effective in reducing depression among patients with MDD (Major Depressive Disorder).”

In short, while antidepressants might initially be more effective, this study found that exercise could be just as effective over a prolonged period of time.

The above report is hardly the only study focusing on the relationship between exercise and depression. The January 2005 issue of the American Journal of Preventative Medicine provided additional evidence that exercise improves mental health, as it included the results of a 12-week study of depression patients. As with the 1999 study, participants were divided into several specific groups; in this case, there were four groups as opposed to three.

Each set of participants was required to engage in physical activity, though the amount of exercise they performed varied widely. The group that performed the least amount of physical activity was simply asked to stretch regularly. On the other end of the spectrum, the group with the heaviest workload was required to meet CDC recommendations for daily exercise.

At the conclusion of the study, the researchers found that all groups exhibited reduced symptoms of depression. However, those that underwent the most rigorous exercise program showed the most improvement when tested at the end of the study. Specifically, nearly half (46%) of the group that met the CDC’s exercise guidelines reported a fifty percent reduction in depression symptoms. Perhaps more impressively, 42% of the participants in this same group no longer met the criteria for depression.

Those good feelings you experience during a work out aren’t a coincidence; they are the result of a chemical reaction that rewards the body for its hard work. In addition to elevating your mood, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests that regular exercise can help alleviate persistent depression. If you ever need extra motivation to hit the gym, remind yourself that you’ll be doing both your body and mind a big favor.

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