The importance of exercise and mental health has definitely been hitting the headlines a lot more over the last few years. I’m sure you’ll agree that now, more than ever, looking after our mental health has never been more important. Not only do we have the impact of lockdown or restrictions due to Covid to consider, but this is the time of year when S.A.D, Seasonal Affective Disorder, can be more prevalent.

S.A.D is often called the ‘Winter Depression’ as it is a form of depression which comes and goes with the seasons. The reduced number of hours of sunlight affects how the hypothalamus in the brain works, which increases the amount of melatonin (our sleepy hormone) we produce and makes us feel more lethargic and tired. It also reduces the amount of serotonin we produce. When serotonin is in optimum supply we feel happy, calm and content. Conversely, low levels of serotonin are linked with higher rates of anxiety and depression.  So, not only do we have the demands of lockdown to deal with, but we may also have to content with Seasonal Affective Disorder too! This blog is going to look at exercise and mental health and how it boosts our mood, positivity and mental wellbeing.

Why Does Exercise Boost Your Mood?

Exercise is awesome for boosting your mood for four reasons:

  1. It releases brain derived neurotrophic hormone (BDNF)
  2. It releases endorphins
  3. It increases the amount of serotonin
  4. It may increase the amount of dopamine

So why are these four factors important?

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Hormone (BDNF)

I was fortunate enough this week to present a webinar at York Business Week where I discussed exercise and mental health, and I still had to look at my notes to get ‘brain derived neurotrophic hormone’ correct! So why is BDNF so fabulous?

Despite the fact that we live in a very advanced world, the brain is still very primitive. When you choose to go out for a run, go to the gym or do your weekly HIIT class, the brain doesn’t realised you are doing this because you choose to, it recognises the increase in your heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure as stress and therefore goes into flight or fight mode.  When we are in flight or fight, we produce adrenalin and also BDNF.

BDNF serves two functions in relation to mental health. Firstly, it repairs the memory neurons in the brain. Secondly, it acts as a ‘reset’ switch. Have you ever felt really stressed before your workout? You’ve got a deadline to meet at work, you’ve had a row with your partner or a friend, the kids are driving you mad. Yet, after your workout you feel great, everything feels more in control and you’re ready to tackle whatever problem you had on your mind. This is BDNF coming into play and acting as a reset. Essentially BDNF makes you feel like you’re back in control and can see a positive outlook.

Endorphins

You must have heard of endorphins before. You do an awesome workout and you feel great and everyone says, ‘ooooh that’s the endorphins racing around your body’. Well it’s true! Endorphins are released when we exercise and offer two things. Firstly they are a natural pain reliever, secondly they boost pleasure and feelings of wellbeing. So it’s no wonder your feel amazing after a workout! Endorphins are also linked with the reward centre in our brain, so the more you do something which makes you feel good, the more you want to do it! On this note, here’s a little tip, try to keep into a regular routine with your exercises so you can keep topping up your reward centre and it will have such a positive impact on your mood and positivity.

Serotonin

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, at optimum levels serotonin helps us to regulate our moods, feel good, feel less anxious and more emotionally stable. Low levels of serotonin may be linked with high levels of anxiety and depression. Exercise boosts our serotonin levels so it’s important to keep physically active to keep your serotonin levels topped up. Serotonin can also be boosted through our diet too, so stock up on wholegrains, foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids (oily fish, nuts and seeds), green leafy veg, avocados and beans and pulses.

Dopamine

Similar to serotonin, dopamine is a neurotransmitter. Research on dopamine and exercise in humans is much more limited, but the research does suggest that exercise increases dopamine. Dopamine is linked to our reward centre, it gives us the motivation to complete a task (in this case do some exercise) and also makes us feel satisfied when we have completed the tasks. Low levels of dopamine makes us feel lethargic, moody and lacking motivation, so it’s important we keep dopamine levels at their optimum. In addition to exercise, we can do this through eating foods high in Omega 3 fatty acids.

Throughout this blog I’ve referred to exercise mainly in the form of ‘structured’ exercise such as going to the gym, going for a run, going to a class but all of the factors above can be achieved by just being more physically active in your day to day life too. A study in 2000 found that just 10 minutes of brisk walking per day was enough to boost an individuals mood, although more recent research suggests that greater mental health benefits are gained from doing exercise/physical activity for a minimum of 20 minutes.

To keep positive and look after your mental health, I challenge you to do some exercises for a minimum of 10 minutes each day for the following week. I can pretty much guarantee you will feel amazing for it.

Stay Safe x