Exercise and the Human Brain: Physical Fitness reduces Stress, fights Depression

Earlier this week, in an write-up focusing on the importance of combining weight loss and muscle toning, I touched on the subject of how exercise effects the brain by helping to relieve stress and anxiety. In today’s restless society, I think that’s a topic that is well worth elaborating on.

Researchers have been studying the positive effects of exercise on mental health for decades, and the data continues to poor in. Not only are regular fitness workouts a great way to prevent things like depression, anxiety and even memory loss, they can actually work as a cure for pre-existing ailments.

Effects of Exercie on the BrainIt was originally thought, often published, and generally accepted that exercise releases endorphins in the brain; the bodies natural feel-good drug. It would certainly make sense that an endorphin boost would help people suffering from many types of mental illnesses to feel better, but after years of research, there’s simply no evidence that supports that theory.

So if it’s not endorphins that make us feel so great after a jog around the neighborhood or bike ride through the park, what is it? According to the American Psychological Association, it has a lot more to do with a different chemical released by the brain, known as norepinephrine.

With the help of University of Georgia’s Rod K. Dishman, PhD, and Indiana University School of Medicine’s Mark Sothmann, PhD, the APA documented the effects of norepinephrine on the human psyche.

“Norepinephrine is particularly interesting to researchers because 50 percent of the brain’s supply is produced in the locus coeruleus, a brain area that connects most of the brain regions involved in emotional and stress responses,” wrote the APA.

Scientists believe the chemical “plays a major role in modulating the action of other, more prevalent neurotransmitters that play a direct role in the stress response,” said the APA. And while they admitted researchers still don’t know exactly how today’s antidepressant medications work, they have discovered that many of them “increase brain concentrations of norepinephrine.”

Exercise More Effective Than Medication

More importantly, though, the effects of antidepressant that encourage norepinephrine production don’t seem to have the same level of positives effects on our psyche as exercise. The APA explained that some psychologists believe “exercise thwarts depression and anxiety by enhancing the body’s ability to respond to stress.”

In most studies, the type of activity associated with the body’s heightened ability to deal with stressful situations is any form of aerobic exercise.

A trio of physicians from Nebraska documented findings that, “Aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proved to reduce anxiety and depression.” They also believe that physical activity benefits an individual’s mental health by promoting “distraction, self-efficacy, and social interaction,” ultimately boosting their self-esteem.

30 Minutes a Day, 3 Days a Week

It doesn’t take much to achieve these benefits either. “Thirty minutes of exercise of moderate intensity, such as brisk walking for 3 days a week, is sufficient for these health benefits. Moreover, these 30 minutes need not to be continuous; three 10-minute walks are believed to be as equally useful as one 30-minute walk,” wrote the study’s authors.

Whether you’re goal is to lose weight, get fit, stave off negative moods, or any combination thereof, the effects of exercise on the human brain and body are heavily documented, and well worth a little time out of our busy days.

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