It’s no secret that exercise is good for your physical health, but you may be surprised at how good it is for your mind.
Regardless of what you think about exercise, there’s no denying that it holds numerous health benefits—benefits to our physical health and to our mental health.
Unfortunately, most of us don’t exercise enough.
How much do we need?
For optimal health, it’s recommended adults are active on most, if not all days of the week. We should aim to accumulate 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity exercise each week (that’s between 21 – 42 minutes per day), or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity (10 – 21 minutes per day), or an equivalent combination of both.
Statistics show that nearly 70 per cent of Australian adults, which is equivalent to almost 12 million people), are either sedentary or engage in low levels of physical activity.
When beginning an exercise plan, most of us tend to focus on the physical health benefits. These include weight management, increased energy, improving sleep quality and its ability to prevent and manage a wide range of health conditions and diseases.
However, research has shown that by engaging in regular exercise, we can reap many mental health benefits as well, including boosted brain power and improved mood.
Exercise boosts brain power
Numerous studies have shown that exercise results in tremendous improvements in our brain power. For example:
- Exercising regularly increases memory and improves the ability to learn new things.
- Just 20 minutes of exercise assists with information processing and memory functions.
- Engaging in regular aerobic exercise leads to improved memory and thinking skills.
- Sustained aerobic exercise has been shown to create new brain cells (known as neurogenesis), in the hippocampus, a brain structure that’s important for learning.
Research has also shown that people who exercise regularly are more productive than those who do not engage in regular activity.
Exercise improves our mood
As well as increasing our brain power, exercise can improve our mood, and is often used to treat anxiety disorders and clinical depression. A recent review of over 26 years’ worth of research findings has found that moderate exercise can prevent depressive episodes in the future. The review also found that even low levels of physical activity, such as walking or gardening, for just 20 to 30 minutes a day, can prevent depression in people of all age groups.
It’s believed the benefits relating to improved mood are a result of chemical and behavioural changes. Firstly, exercise reduces the body’s stress hormones (e.g. adrenaline and cortisol), while stimulating the production of our ‘feel-good’ chemicals, called endorphins. These endorphins are responsible for the ‘runner’s high’, and the positive, yet relaxed feeling you have after a good workout.
Secondly, it’s believed that our mood increases because of our increased confidence, resulting from exercise. As we begin to look and feel better physically, and as our stamina and sleep patterns improve, we naturally feel better about ourselves. This increased confidence and self-esteem in turn, leads to happier moods.
How to start
If you’re all for improving your physical and mental health, but are overwhelmed at how much exercise you should be doing, don’t panic. Research shows that doing some exercise is better than nothing. The key is to start out small and build up from there.
If it’s been a while since you’ve exercised, you have a chronic health condition, or you’re carrying excess weight, visit your doctor and get the all-clear before you get started. It may also be beneficial to engage the services of an exercise physiologist or an accredited fitness professional, to ensure you’re exercising safely.
When it comes to mental health, the research is clear — exercise definitely helps. So if you’re ready to improve your health and happiness, get off the couch and get moving.