The Science of Fitness & Mental Health
Probably anyone could agree that a good workout gives a nice mood boost and even more so if you engage in regular activity. Although exercise and a good mood are commonly associated, is there any science to back it up? There is! In fact, the research about the relationship between physical fitness and mental health is growing all the time. With more and more studies coming to the surface, we can more clearly see how fitness is associated with mood. Many studies also offer the benefit of having a large number of subjects, making the research more expansive.
For example, a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers from Yale and Oxford used a data sample with a positively jaw-dropping size: 1.2 million Americans, all ages 18 and older. It represented three years’ worth of data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavioral Risk Factors Surveillance. The study asked people questions about their mental health history, their current wellbeing, and their exercise habits.
This study was pretty unique in that what was counted as exercise was incredibly broad. People could choose from 75 different types, from traditional pastimes like basketball and yoga to more unusual activities like “active gaming devices,” “hunting large game,” and “snow shoveling by hand.”
The combination of such a large sample size and a broad definition of “exercise” yielding very interesting results. Overall, the study found that those who exercised had 40 percent better mental health than people who didn’t exercise at all. Even when they controlled for BMI, physical health, and sociodemographic factors like, age and race, the most significant factor that contributed to mental health was activity level.
It didn’t really matter which activity people did, either — just exercising alone was enough. Some activities had a bigger impact than others, however. Team sports were the biggest mood boosters, followed by cycling, aerobics, and running. Household chores were understandably near the bottom, but they were still associated with a boost in overall mood.
How Fitness Can Benefit Your Mental Health
With the backing of science, it is pretty clear to see that maintaining your fitness has a great impact on overall mental health. However, specifically, does exercise impact the health of minds and the stability of our emotions? Below are some of the mental health benefits that can be reaped from regular physical exercise.
Exercise Decreases Stress Levels
The findings of mulitple studies have found that exercise plays a significant role in reducing stress hormones. As an example, research has shown that regular activity decreases cortisol. But not only that, getting your body moving also increases endorphins. This comboination of lowering cortisol and improving your brain’s chemistry to produce endorphines is a one-two punch for beating stress, anexiety, and depression.
Also, exercise provides a buffer against stress. One study found that those who get more exercise may become less affected by the stress they face. This may be because the brain is more equipped to deal with stress, the mind’s reaction to stressful situations is less profound. In other words, getting your daily workout might help those of us who operate with a shorter fuse. So, in addition to all the other benefits, exercise may supply some immunity toward future stress as well as a way to cope with current stress.
Exercise Improves Mood & Emotional Response
Exercise promotes confidence. Because exercise can help you lose weight and tone your body, the mind positively responds to this. Although the physical effects of going for a simple run might be small, the mental benefit of feeling stronger in your body is quite significant. You may feel a subtle boost in your mood as your clothes look more flattering, and you project an aura of increased strength. One study recognized that even moderate exercise once to twice a week had a noticeable impact on their subject’s overall mood.
Also, exercise can be a good source of social support. The benefits of social support are well-documented, and many physical activities can be social activities as well. So whether you join an exercise class or you play softball in a league, exercising with others can give you a double-dose of stress relief.
Physical Fitness & Brain Chemistry
Not only has research recognized that physical activity has a positive impact on your mental health, but science is also honing in on the brain chemistry behind it.
Studies have shown that regular exercise reduces the overall activation of our amygdala and sympathetic nervous system. These are the parts of our brain and body that generate the stress response. This means that with regular exercise, your brain is more equipped to deal with stress. Therefore, those who are engaged in regular exercise may have a mind that is more ready to deal with stress than people who are sedentary.
Exercise also stimulates chemicals in the brain called “brain-derived neurotrophic factors.” Although that sounds like you need a science degree to understand it, it essentially means that activity helps new brain cells to grow and develop. This is a process that is incredibly important for the health of your brain, along with your mood. Studies suggest that just ten weeks of regular exercise is enough to improve your mental wellbeing significantly.
Nature’s Roll In Improving Mental Health
A simple stay in the outdoors can do wonders for relieving anxiety, stress, and depression. Countless studies have proven that nature has a positive effect on your mental health. What you see, hear, and experience in nature can improve your mood in a moment. There is a strong connection between time spent in nature and reduced negative emotions. This includes symptoms of anxiety, depression, and psychosomatic illnesses like irritability, insomnia, tension, headaches, and indigestion.
Feeling stressed? Research shows a link between exposure to nature and stress reduction. Stress is relieved within minutes of exposure to nature as measured by muscle tension, blood pressure, and brain activity. Plus, time in green spaces significantly reduces your cortisol, which is a stress hormone. Nature also boosts endorphin levels and dopamine production, which promotes happiness.