As if you haven’t already heard all the reasons to exercise from your therapist or doctor, here we are, about to go into more of them! That said, hear us out, as there’s some rather fascinating science that supports using exercise for better mental and emotional well-being.
Better Brain Health
Regular and consistent movement releases “feel good” brain chemicals such as dopamine, endocannabinoids, endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These hormones and neurotransmitters play a large part in our overall stress regulation and nervous system function.
But the American Psychological Association (APA) also points out that exercise actually improves overall brain health. It supports better cognitive functioning and, as a result, leads to “improvements in episodic memory, which is our ability to bind how events, people, and places come together in everyday life.” Movement also increases the brain muscle. “Recent studies suggest physical activity benefits white and gray matter in the brain, which leads to enhancement of cognitive processes like thinking and memory, attention span, and perception,” the APA states.
Why does this matter? With a healthy brain, you have better clarity, feel less disoriented or distracted, and recognize connections to your community more easily, which can be quite a boost when you’re feeling low or lonely.
Movement Reduces Pain
This seems almost counterintuitive, but it’s true. According to Utah State University, “physical activity reduces chronic pain by building muscle strength and flexibility, reducing fatigue, reducing pain sensitivity, and reducing inflammation. Research suggests that exercise may even be effective in reducing pain for difficult-to-treat conditions like fibromyalgia and neck/shoulder pain.”
What’s even more interesting is that in addition to reducing inflammation, researchers notice that exercise also “reduces pain sensitivity compared to non-exercise training treatments. Exercise can change how the brain responds to pain by normalizing the pain signal process and promoting the release of analgesics, such as natural pain relievers and serotonin, that turn off pain signals.”
If you or someone you love struggles with chronic pain, you completely understand how this affects your mood and mindset every single day. The constant setbacks and reminders of what you can or cannot do create tremendous frustration and disillusionment. Knowing that even the easiest form of movement, such as gentle yoga or a slow stroll through the forest on a sunny day, can bring about effective, positive change is encouraging.
Being Physical Improves Self-Perception
Even if you’re not the most adventurous person by nature, the more physical you are, the easier it is to think of yourself as more capable. This shift in perception often happens after you’ve completed a particular exercise goal—or just got out of bed for a run, even when you didn’t feel like it. Few things compare to that feeling of accomplishment.
Health psychologist Kelly McGonigal is the author of The Joy of Movement. The following is an excerpt from her article for Greater Good Science Center. “One woman I spoke with shared a story about when she was in her early 20s and found herself severely depressed, with a plan to take her own life. The day she intended to go through with it, she went to the gym for one last workout. She deadlifted 185 pounds, a personal best. When she put the bar down, she realized that she didn’t want to die. Instead, she remembers, ‘I wanted to see how strong I could become.’ Five years later, she can now deadlift 300 pounds.”
Okay, so deadlifting might not be your thing. That’s totally fine. However, you can see how that spark of accomplishment allowed this woman to move through her feelings of despair and find hope.
Exercise Can Improve Brain Health
The State Department of Health of Victoria, Australia indicates that “exercise can improve your sense of control, coping ability and self-esteem. People who exercise regularly often report how good achieving a goal makes them feel. It can also distract you from negative thoughts and provide opportunities to try new experiences.”
You don’t have to be an ultra-marathoner (unless you want to!) or bike across Europe (again, totally your choice) to set incremental fitness goals or join different exercise classes throughout the week. What’s most important is that you recognize when certain types of movement make you feel better than before you started. Maybe you’re refreshed or have increased energy. Maybe you’re more calm, or notice a weight off your shoulders. As long as the perception dial has shifted from red to green, you’re on the right track.
Use Exercise to Find Balance
We hope these few examples of exercise benefits paint a clearer picture of the whole-person connection: what’s good for the body is good for the mind and the spirit. Movement therapy and
somatic experiencing are integral components within Cottonwood Tucson’s integrated treatment approach for mental illnesses, trauma, complicated grief, and mood disorders. Want to learn more? Please reach out anytime.