Exercise for positive mental health

Do you consider the contribution of physical exercise to your mental health and wellbeing? Maybe, maybe not. In this blog, James Golden evaluates how exercise directly affects the brain.

We know an inactive lifestyle could contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, certain types of cancer, osteoporosis, and generally can shorten life expectancy. 

Considering the effects of regular exercise on your mental health and well-being can open the door to improving your current health status. 

Modern lifestyle can hinder mental health 

Rates of depression and anxiety are at their highest recorded levels in the UK. Undoubtedly, many aspects of "modern life" like the increasing social media demands we put on ourselves, can contribute to this state. Other contributing factors include the long working weeks, poor diets, financial pressure and the demands on our image. However, inactivity is another key factor and is proving to be one of the biggest contributors. Poor lifestyle choices can create a spiral of negativity.  

Most of us find that a walk in the sun or in the beautiful countryside, or the hike, or that trip to the park improves our mood in the short term. 

Family walking through the woods in the sunshineFamily walking through the woods in the sunshine

The benefits of exercise on mental health

Exercise is well known to stimulate the body to produce endorphins and enkephalins - the body’s natural feel-good hormones which can help to manage our problems more effectively. The simple act of focusing on exercise can give us a break from current concerns we may be experiencing. Furthermore, depending on the activity, of course, people may benefit from a more calming approach to exercise to improve the mood and general health i.e. yoga class. It’s good practice to find the specific exercise type that works for you and what you enjoy. 

Can exercise be added to chronic mental illness treatment?

Evidence suggests that exercise is not only necessary for the maintenance of good mental health, but it can be used to even treat chronic mental illness. A recent study carried out by the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health identified that anything over 15 mins of steady activity per day can reduce the risk of depression by 26%.  It’s becoming clearer that exercise reduces the likelihood of depression and also maintains positive mental health as we grow older. This also applies in terms of reducing the risks of dementia, anxiety, and even lowering the risks of cognitive issues in schizophrenia.

But how? The simple answer being: exercise directly affects the brain.

The hippocampus

The hippocampus shown in the brain of a female |DNAfit BlogThe hippocampus shown in the brain of a female

Regular exercise promotes an improved blood supply that improves neuronal health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients. 

A critical area of importance for mental health is the hippocampus—an area of the brain involved in memory, emotion regulation, and learning. 

Several lines of evidence point to mental health conditions being associated with reduced neurogenesis in the hippocampus. The evidence is particularly strong for depression as identified by the National Institute of Health

Mental ill-health is classified by a cognitive inflexibility that keeps us repeating certain negative behaviours, restricts our ability to process or even acknowledge new information, and reduces our ability to use what we already know to change. It’s therefore plausible that exercise leads to better mental health in general, through its effect on systems that increase the capacity for mental flexibility.  

Exercise and it’s feel-good benefits

Studies have shown that three exercise/training sessions per week can help control depression. The greater results achieved will be through consistency and longevity. 

In addition, the feel-good benefits of potential weight loss, increased energy, better skin, and improved physical health will all contribute to a more positive outlook on life. Small improvements in exercise levels or nutrition create a positive upward spiral and eventually become rewarding, even if that seems unimaginable at the start.

- James Golden, DNAfit Guest Blogger

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About James Golden:

Fitness trainer, lifestyle coach and consultant, James Golden - AKA ‘The Fitness Pro’ is noted to be one of the go-to fitness experts in the health and fitness industry. With over 15 years in health and fitness, James uses an approach to training which is fun but ultimately results-based. His areas of specialism are in weight management and performance training. James Golden is currently a Fitness Consultant to Bamford at Daylesford.


instagram_legacy_color-1 @AKA_thefitnesspro


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