Why is exercise good for our minds?

Posted on June 23, 2016 by Helen Field

HY Exercise Mind"Stress/anxiety is cited as one of the UK's leading health concerns", so we've found in the Simplyhealth/ YouGov Everyday Health Tracker, Wave 4 report. Balancing the pressures of high demands in work with your busy family life can take its toll on your mind as well as your body, and it can have different effects on each of us. We should ask ourselves, 'what can I do to maintain a healthy mind?' Practicing mindfulness techniques and eating healthily can boost your wellbeing, as can exercise.

This blog takes a look at the surprising effects exercise has on the mind and the science behind it.

Move to boost your mood

As well as helping people who suffer from mild depression, exercise can help relieve anxiety by increasing serotonin. This is a chemical which is responsible for maintaining mood balance. Many studies show that exercise increases both serotonin production and release, especially in aerobic exercises, like running and cycling.

Our report shows the most popular motivations to exercise "are to feel better overall and to raise levels of general fitness." The NHS recommends 75 minutes of vigorous exercise every week, or a mixture of moderate and vigorous. Unfortunately, a large number of people don't even reach the recommended level of exercise.  Our Everyday Health Tracker report shows a steady drop in the number of adults who take part in regular aerobic exercise (at least three times a week). Regular exercise can help make you feel happier and more positive, so try to set aside some time to get out on your bike with your family at the weekend, or go for a run after work. Exercise away your stress and anxiety.

The science behind... serotonin

Sometimes known as the 'joy chemical', serotonin is a neurotransmitter found in the human brain as well as in other parts in the body. This chemical plays a very important role in a range of vital brain functions. Studies have shown that the amount of serotonin in the brain increases the more you exercise, and the production of serotonin stays raised for some days after exercise.

Want some of the feel good factor? 

Exercising when you feel stressed can help improve your mood, as it triggers the release of endorphins. So going for a jog after a stressful day at the office, should help you feel calmer and more relaxed. Fitness tracking devices are proving to be a popular way to motivate you to get up off the sofa and reach your target. 13% of adults use a fitness or activity tracking device, and 14% use a fitness app. As well as providing you with incentive goals, they can even help you keep track of what you're eating, how much sleep you're getting, and your heartrate.

The science behind... endorphins

Endorphins are chemicals in the body which help relieve pain and cause feelings of pleasure. Stress and pain are the most common factors which lead to the release of endorphins, your body's natural painkillers.  Exercise triggers the release of chemicals called endorphins, which interact with your brain's receptors. The positive feeling this gives you is similar to the effect of morphine.

Boost your brain power

An active body means an active mind. When you exercise, your heart pumps more blood around the body, and therefore more oxygen reaches different parts. Studies show that children who are active can focus better in class, as exercise increases the levels of dopamine in the brain.

A sedentary lifestyle isn't good for your body or your mind. Studies show that exercise can greatly improve anxiety and mild depression, saving many people from needing prescription drugs. Being physically active later in life can help ward off dementia, as parts of the brain which usually shrink in dementia remain larger. Exercise can also help those with dementia.

The science behind... dopamine
This neurotransmitter helps control communication in the brain to do with reward and pleasure. Dopamine helps us recognise reward and take action towards it. The levels of dopamine are much higher than those in our primate cousins, which differentiates us from them, and enables us to plan ahead and resist distractions.

Our brains need a good night's sleep

How well do you manage to sleep every night? Do you go to bed at a regular time? The Everyday Health Tracker found that "Sleep deprivation is revealed to have the biggest effect on UK employees, affecting 53% of people."

There are many factors which could be affecting your sleep, including stress, drinking caffeine in the evening, looking at your phone straight before bed, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. These restrict the release of melatonin which can then lead to insomnia, where you may have trouble falling asleep, you sleep lightly, keep waking up throughout the night, or still feel tired in the morning.

Research shows the quality of sleep is better in people who exercise. Researchers also found it increases happiness, liveliness, and concentration throughout the day. So setting a routine for your internal clock is a great way to help you get a decent night's sleep. Our brains are great at recognising and ingraining patterns like habits.

The science behind... melatonin

Our internal clocks tell us when we need to sleep and wake. As evening approaches, more melatonin is released. It peaks in the middle of the night, then drops gradually again in the morning. This whole process begins in the eye's retina. When light hits it, a signal is sent to the brain to make us feel wide awake or sleepy.

Being very stressed can cause less melatonin to be released, making it harder to sleep. Lack of sleep has been linked to having trouble with memory and concentration.

Give your mind what it needs

Start with a simple routine
89% of adults rate themselves as responsible for their own health and wellbeing. After all, you have the most control when it comes to what you eat, what you do, and how you do it. It's never too late to increase the amount you exercise. If you know your lifestyle could be more active, then why not start by counting your steps? There are loads of apps to help you reach your target too.

Or power through a sprint
What if you're feeling like something a bit more intense, but you're struggling to find the time to go for a lengthy run? It doesn't have to be a marathon. In fact sprinting in between jogging is great for improving your fitness and metabolism. After a stressful day at the office, you'll feel calmer and more relaxed. Why not try some tennis or bowls on the lawn with your friends? Go on, give it a go!

Want to learn how working life affects our minds?
You've learned how exercise benefits our minds, but how do our jobs affect them? Is eating lunch at our desks having a good or bad effect on our health?

Discover some interesting answers as well as what we should do to help maintain a healthier lifestyle at work. Read more.

Explore other interesting blogs here.