The science behind mental health and exercise

Mental Health Awareness Week runs from 9-15 May – the GB Rowing Sports Science Team explores why exercise is important for wellbeing


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The benefit of regular exercise on physical well-being is well established. Regular exercise improves muscular strength, cardiovascular fitness, and improves bone health. It also reduces the risk of several diseases including high blood pressure, coronary heart disease, and Type 2 diabetes. However, exercise also plays an important role in mental well-being by reducing feelings of stress and anxiety, and by helping to lift mood state.

Serotonin is often referred to as the body’s natural “feel good” chemical

Firstly, exercise triggers the release of chemical messengers in the brain called neurotransmitters. Endorphins are one of many neurotransmitters released when you exercise and they play an important role in regulating mood state. Endorphins interact with opiate (pain) receptors in the body, acting as natural pain killers and boosting pleasure, which results in feelings of positive well-being. You will also feel a lift in mood state following exercise thanks to a boost in a neurotransmitter called serotonin. Serotonin is often referred to as the body’s natural “feel good” chemical and plays an important role in regulating mood and anxiety amongst a several other functions.

Exercise also helps to improve concentration, memory, and learning which may help to minimise distractions in your new working environment. The exercise-induced increase in blood flow to the brain, increases the activity of neurons. Neurons are essential structural units of the brain that process and transmit information around the body. Advances in neuroimaging have also shown that regular exercise can lead to structural changes in the brain. For example, regular aerobic exercise has been shown to play an important role in neurogenesis, the growth of new neurons. One recent Harvard study (1) found that regular exercise promotes cell growth of the hippocampus, the part of the brain associated with memory and learning, by doing just 30 minutes of moderate exercise per day.

Regular exercise can lead to structural changes in the brain

There are a host of other ways that exercise promotes positive mental well-being, including relieving muscular tension which you may have built up throughout the day, improving sleep quality, and boosting energy levels.

Exercise doesn’t have to mean running marathons every day, there are lots of ways to be active and finding a physical activity regime to suit your new lifestyle is key. Exercise shouldn’t be something we ‘have to do’, but something that we enjoy doing because it makes us feel good and we recognise the value that it has on our physical and mental well-being.

The fitter children also performed better in memory recognition tasks.

Five top tips for mental and physical well-being

  1. If you are feeling periods of heightened stress and anxiety go for a short (as little as 30 minutes) walk, jog, or a bike ride, outside if you can. If you don’t want to leave the house, try a home workout like gardening or yoga.
  2. Try to think of physical activity as a lifestyle choice, rather than a chore. Choose activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good as this will help you to sustain a consistent exercise routine.
  3. Make exercise fun and social by including the people in your household – that includes children too. American researchers (2) found that children aged 9-10 with high levels of fitness had a greater hippocampal volume, compared to children with a lower level of fitness. Interestingly, the fitter children also performed better in memory recognition tasks.
  4. Fitness trackers and apps can help you stay connected and motivated during this time. Tracking your progress will give you a sense of accomplishment and an emotional boost to keep going.
  5. Many gyms and apps are offering virtual sessions and classes which may help to give you a social connection.

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Take it further – the references

(1) Thomas et al (2016). Multi-modal characterization of rapid anterior hippocampal volume increase associated with aerobic exercise. NeuroImage, 131, 162–170.

(2) Chaddock et al. (2010). A neuroimaging investigation of the association between aerobic fitness, hippocampal volume, and memory performance in preadolescent children. Brain Research, 1358, 172–183.