It has been well documented over the years that physical activity has a positive effect on mental health. But the question is why and how…
When we exercise the body produces feel good hormones known as endorphins, these help to process problems in the brain and make them seem more manageable. Exercise can be used to energize the body or alternatively it can be a calming influence, it can be a social event or just getting outside in the fresh air, either way all these aspects are known to promote good health and lift the mood. The shift in focus for the brain helps to discourage from dwelling on the stresses and strains of daily life.
There is now strong evidence that suggests exercise can be used to treat long term mental illness; evidence shows that it can reduce the chance of developing depression along with maintaining mental health in older age. It can be a form of prescribed treatment for mild depression, anxiety and dementia.
When we exercise regularly certain parts of the brain increase in volume, this is partly due to improved blood supply which increases the delivery of oxygen and nutrients to the neurons which are the cells that transmit information. This then promotes the growth of these cells and improves the connections.
Put simply: Exercise directly affects the brain. Regular exercise increases the volume of certain brain regions—in part through better blood supply that improves neuronal health by improving the delivery of oxygen and nutrients; and through an increase in neurotrophic factors and neurohormones that support neuron signalling, growth, and connections.
An area of the brain that is vital to mental health is the hippocampus, this affects memory, emotions and learning. Studies suggest that exercise can have a direct effect on the creation of new hippocampul neurons in humans as the evidence done on animals was highly convincing. Evidence is getting stronger in proving that mental health is linked to a reduction in these neurons. Research shows this is particularly key in depression.
A lot of mental health issues can be characterized as an inflexibility within the brain that prevents us from changing bad habits, inhibits the brain’s ability to process new information and prevents us from using knowledge to change our behaviour or see a new solution. For this reason, it could be said that exercise leads to all round improved mental health by increasing this flexibility.