Physical Activity and Mental Health
There is a reason people talk about a runner’s high, or why we feel exhilarated after a hard workout. Think back to the last great workout you had. Relive that feeling, that sense of accomplishment. You stand tall, taking in deep breaths, your muscles are sore and you feel alive. Maybe you thought you wouldn’t finish it, maybe you felt like giving up. However, something pushed you to keep going and you found your strength. You’re not imagining things. There is science behind this.
While it is well known that exercise and keeping active is crucial to maintaining physical health, the past decade or so has seen a rise in interest in how physical activity relates to mental health. Much research remains to be done on what types of exercise have a positive effect on mental health and exactly what the nature of this effect is but we do know that there is a positive correlation.
According to the American Psychological Association, there are several reasons exercise could be good for our brains, both biochemical and psychological. Biologically speaking, based on current research, there is a connection between exercise and the release of serotonin; the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of happiness and well-being. Physical activity is also responsible for normalizing sleep, which can have a protective effect on the brain preventing future mental health issues. Because of this, exercise has been shown to alleviate depression and anxiety, as the blood circulation caused by physical activity affects functions of the brain in the areas related to mood, motivation, fear and stress.
On a psychological level, exercise can positively affect many aspects of our lives. First and foremost is the sense of accomplishment derived from getting to the end of a hard workout or training session; the rush of having pushed ourselves and completed a goal. This feeling can have far reaching effects that last far longer than the duration of the workout, boosting self-esteem, productivity and self-efficacy. Exercise can also bolster social connection; working out with a friend or a group can promote a sense of community and connectedness.
The reasons people exercise are many and varied. We keep active to be physically healthy, to look good, to reach an athletic goal, but we may not think as often to exercise to keep our brain healthy. Physical activity can have incredible impacts on mental health. Mental health is a topic that has long been subjected to stigma. While people may be reticent to discuss it, when brought up in the context of sports and exercise it can be more approachable. Think of your brain and your mental well-being next time you exercise and thank yourself for doing something positive for your mental health.
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