As a psychotherapist one of the questions I always ask my clients in the first session is “Do you exercise regularly and if so how much?” This is actually a common question in the mental health field, the importance of which is backed by a good deal of research. Whether you are an avid exercise enthusiast, weekend warrior, or even infrequent exerciser you may have noticed the positive impact of a good heart-pounding workout on your mood. Such sayings as “runner’s high” and “exercise endorphins,” are often thrown around in regards to this mind/body connection, but did you ever wonder what exactly is going on in your brain when you exercise and how you could most effectively tap into this mood lifting life giving power? If so, read on as I explore the connection between exercise and mental health and how to utilize the power of your mind and body to keep you healthy and happy.
Exercise: A Key Ingredient to Happiness
For many years I have been aware that exercise is not just a part of my physical health but an integral part of my mental health care as well. Perhaps because from an early age I started experiencing severe gut disturbances, the place where many mood-enhancing compounds are made in the body, I am especially sensitive to the impacts of exercise. If I’m not physically active for a few days, and if I add in a little stress from being sick or from being too busy to exercise, I feel a dramatic drop in mood. This has lead me to seek out physical activities that I enjoy, that I can do with others, and that keep me motivated to stay active. When I am regularly active I notice a greater sense of wellbeing, confidence, and peace, as well as tendency to be more outgoing, more motivated, and a generally more positive outlook on life.
My fascination with the mind/body connection first began through the recognition of the immense impact exercise has on my mental health. Over the years I have come to believe, through both ongoing research findings and the experience of myself and my clients, that regular exercise is one of the most important things anyone can do for their mental health. You also don’t have to spend all your free time exercising in order to receive the benefits. Let’s take a look at some of the science behind this phenomena . . .
Your Brain on Exercise
The moment you begin to exercise, let’s say you are starting a run, your brain recognizes this as a stressor and does all kinds of nifty things such as release cortisol (the stress hormone) and shunt blood to your extremities. To protect yourself from the harmful impacts of physical stress your brain also releases a protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), which has both a protective and reparative interaction with your neurons. BDNF also has a positive effect on our mood. If you feel particularly at ease with a sense of clarity after exercising that is BDNF hard at work in your brain. We evolved to both evade predators and chase down pray, two essential ingredients of our ancestors survival. Along with the sacrifices our body makes to achieve these essential behaviors, our brain also has an ingeniously built-in protective mechanism to mitigate these sacrifices, which includes BDNF. Now let’s move on to endorphins.
Endorphins are a collection of 20 or so neurotransmitters, chemicals that pass along signals from one neuron to the next, that are also released in our brains in response to physical stress. They play a key role in the function of the central nervous system and act on the opioid receptors in our brains. Endorphins not only block pain, but they are also responsible for our feelings of pleasure and even euphoria and are a central component of what some call the “runner’s high.” In fact, the only reason morphine works is because we already have natural opioid receptors made for endorphins in our brains. Additionally, the class of endorphins known as beta-endorphins are even stronger than morphine. Because of this connection, endorphins do have an addictive quality, however, unless you are overdoing exercise to the detriment of your body or relationships, they are actually good for you! Feeling good is healthy for you.
How Much Do I Have to Exercise?
If you are wondering if you have to become a professional athlete to get the full mental health benefits of exercise the answer is “No.” In fact, in terms of maximizing the exercise/mental health connection, more does not necessarily equal better. In a recent study from Pennsylvania State University, researchers discovered that to be more calm, productive, and happy on any given day it doesn’t matter nearly as much if you work out regularly, as if you work out that day. In the study, those who exercised regularly for the month preceding the test generally did better on memory than those in the sedentary control group but fell far short of those who had worked out the morning of. In other words, to receive the most mental/emotional benefit from exercise it is important to do at least little every day. So, how much is enough? I’m glad you asked.
It has been shown that the mental health benefits, in the form of peak BDNF and endorphin levels, come in the first 20 minutes of exercise. Given this information I recommend to my clients that they get in at least 20 minutes of vigorous exercise, where the heart rate is consistently elevated, about 6 days a week. For some people who are new to regular exercise “vigorous” might mean a brisk 20-minute walk. For others, it might mean a jog, a basketball game, an active yoga class, or going to the gym. If you are someone who has the energy to exercise in the morning this has the most mood benefit. If you wake up and remain in zombie mode for the first few hours, like myself, well getting it in when you can is still far better than forgoing it. Also, if folks want to exercise more than the above amount I don’t discourage them at all, unless it’s impacting the frequency of exercise or they are showing signs of Exercise Addiction. Regular exercise is one of the cornerstones of not only physical health but mental health as well and it is one of a few simple things we can do, like eating healthy, that has the proportionally largest positive impact on our lives.
Taking the Mind/Body Connection a Step Further . . .
Hopefully it is becoming clearer to you how your physical actions impact your brain and your mental health. What I would like you to now consider is the impact of your thoughts and feelings on your physical and mental health. Dr. Joe Dispenza, states in his book You Are the Placebo that our internal environment, what we think and feel, has an enormous impact on our bodies and brains, for better or for worse. He cites a Harvard study where researchers reframed the daily activities of maids as physical exercise and shared all the amazing and very real health benefits of regular exercise to the individuals working in a hotel. The study participants began to look at their daily tasks not only as things to get done but as working their muscles, increasing strength and burning calories to become healthier, which is exactly what happened. In comparison to the control group, who were not informed of all the benefits of their daily activities, the hotel attendants who were informed showed marked improvements across many health markers. In other words, what we believe has a strong impact on our bodies, and this can both impact mental and physical health.
My hope for you now is not only that you may adopt a more regular exercise routine, but that by being informed of all the benefits of regular exercise you will receive even more calm, clarity, joy, peace, and happiness from it!
More on harnessing the power of the mind/body connection in a future post.
Yours in Health,
Dan Entmacher MA, LPCc