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Exercise leads to mental healthIt has long been suspected that exercise has as much of an impact on the brain as it does the body, even if the body parts doing the heavy lifting are below the neck.  In recent years, suspicions have been backed up with research, and the studies showing links between physical fitness and improved mental health keep piling up.  The latest study to confirm this connection comes from Dartmouth’s David Bucci, an associate professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.  Bucci and his colleagues found that exercise impacts memory differently in adolescents and adults, and also identified a gene that seems to influence the degree to which exercise has a beneficial effect on a person.

Previous studies have shown a variety of benefits that come with exercise related to the brain, aging, and mental health.  One particular area of the brain that seems to show significant improvement from regular physical activity is the prefrontal areas of the frontal lobes, the large portions of the brain cortex located in the front of the brain, which are largely responsible for carrying out executive functioning.   Executive functions allow the human mind to initiate and stop actions, monitor and change behavior, anticipate outcomes, anticipate change, and adapt to change when it occurs.  Additionally, they affect our ability to remember, focus, and plan future actions.

Compromised executive functioning is associated with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), hoarding disorder, Tourette’s syndrome, autism spectrum disorders, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), depression, and schizophrenia.  People suffering from drug and alcohol addiction have also been shown to have impaired executive functioning, though it is not yet known if that is a partial cause of substance abuse problems, an effect of substance abuse, or a combination of the two.

According to the Mayo Clinic, while the links between anxiety, depression, and exercise aren’t entirely clear, it does seem conclusive that exercise is beneficial in relieving the impact of stressors that cause or exacerbate anxiety and depression.  The Mayo Clinic websites lists the following benefits that come with a regular exercise regimen:

  • Releases feel-good brain chemicals that may ease depression (neurotransmitters and endorphins).
  • Reduces immune system chemicals that can worsen depression.
  • Increases body temperature, which may have calming effects.
  • Increases confidence.  Meeting exercise goals or challenges, even small ones, can boost your self-confidence.  Getting in shape can also make you feel better about your appearance.
  • Works to take our minds off our worries.  Exercise is a distraction that can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that feed anxiety and depression.
  • Increases social interaction.  Exercise may give you the chance to meet or socialize with others.  Just exchanging a friendly smile or greeting as you walk around your neighborhood can help your mood.
  • Helps us to cope in a healthy way.  Doing something positive to manage anxiety or depression is a healthy coping strategy.  Trying to feel better by drinking alcohol, dwelling on how badly you feel, or hoping anxiety or depression will go away on its own can lead to worsening symptoms.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) lists these benefits:

  • Increased interest in sex
  • Better endurance
  • Stress relief
  • Improvement in mood
  • Increased energy and stamina
  • Reduced tiredness that can increase mental alertness
  • Weight reduction
  • Reduced cholesterol and improved cardiovascular fitness

Exercise has been linked to positive mood, self-esteem, reduced anxiety and—perhaps most importantly—restful sleep.  Sleep has been shown to play a crucial role in mental and emotional well-being, with the duration, amount, and level of sleep determining the overall effect it has on a person’s mental health.  Those who are physically fit show higher levels of duration, amount, and level of sleep than unfit individuals (referred to as the “chronic effect”), and higher levels on nights following exercise (referred to as the “acute effect”).

Experts recommend that individuals engage in 30 or more minutes of physical activity three to five times per-week.  A person’s daily exercise regimen need not involve intense gym workouts, and may instead involve running, lifting weights, playing sports, cycling, and gardening, doing household chores, running errands, long walks, or climbing stairs.  Staying sedentary may satisfy the lazy and shiftless nature possessed by the great majority of us but, in the long and short term, we are better off being more active.

Starting and maintaining a durable and effective exercise regimen might seem to be an insurmountable obstacle to increasing your physical activity.  The Mayo Clinic website offers the following advice when doing so:

  • Identify what you enjoy doing.  Figure out what type of physical activities you’re most likely to do, and think about when and how you’d be most likely to follow through.  Do what you enjoy to help you stick with it.
  • Get your mental health provider’s support.  Talk to your doctor or other mental health provider for guidance and support.  Discuss concerns about an exercise program and how it fits into your overall treatment plan.
  • Set reasonable goals.  Your mission doesn’t have to be walking for an hour five days a week.  Think realistically about what you may be able to do and tailor your plan to your own needs and abilities rather than trying to meet unrealistic guidelines that you’re unlikely to meet.
  • Don’t think of exercise as a chore.  If exercise is just another “should” in your life that you don’t think you’re living up to, you’ll associate it with failure.  Rather, look at your exercise schedule the same way you look at your therapy sessions or medication — as one of the tools to help you get better.
  • Address your barriers.  Figure out what’s stopping you from exercising.  If you feel self-conscious, for instance, you may want to exercise at home.  If you stick to goals better with a partner, find a friend to work out with.  If you don’t have money to spend on exercise gear, do something that’s virtually cost-free, such as walking.  If you think about what’s stopping you from exercising, you can probably find an alternative solution.
  • Prepare for setbacks and obstacles.  Give yourself credit for every step in the right direction, no matter how small.  If you skip exercise one day, that doesn’t mean you can’t maintain an exercise routine and might as well quit.  Just try again the next day.



  1. http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/05/120518132812.htm
  2. http://www.minddisorders.com/Del-Fi/Executive-function.html
  3. http://www.hammiverse.com/instructionalunits/neuroscience/articles/exerciseonthebrain.pdf
  4. http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/depression-and-exercise/MH00043
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1470658/
  6. http://www.fitness.gov/mentalhealth.htm

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Filed under: Mental Illness, Recovery · Tags: abuse, Addiction, ADHD, alcohol, Alcohol and Drugs, anxiety, areas of the brain, Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders, brain, brain cortex, Dartmouth, David Bucci, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, depression, Exercise, exercising, frontal lobe, hoarding disorder, Mayo Clinic, mental health, mental illness, National Center for Biotechnology Information, obsessive compulsive disorder, ocd, physical activity, prefrontal lobe, schizophrenia, sedentary, sex, sleep, sleep patterns, substance abuse, substances

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