Have you ever been so upset or nervous that you decided to go on a short walk to get some fresh air? It can be assumed that you felt at least a little better once you had walked for a while. It might have been that you felt a lot better and, if you did, there are several good reasons for that. It’s become normal to consider the mind and the body as being separate and to accept the notion that what happens to one doesn’t affect the other. The ways in which you take care of your body can directly affect the state of your mind.
When you think about exercise, remember that it increases the oxygen levels in your blood and, likewise, your brain. It literally forces the blood to absorb more oxygen by increasing your respiratory rate very quickly. Breathing becomes much deeper when you exercise, giving your lungs the opportunity to absorb more oxygen that’s delivered straight into your bloodstream. All the organs of the body benefit dramatically from increased oxygen levels in the body. The brain is the organ that is most in danger when oxygen levels in the body decline. Brain cells don’t survive for long or function very well with low levels of oxygen. The brain actually uses about three times as much oxygen as the muscles of the body do.
The brain needs oxygen, just like any other organ of the body, to repair itself and grow. In order for the brain to function properly and continue to grow, neural pathways must be maintained and new ones need to be established continuously. New neural pathways are formed when we challenge ourselves to learn new things or think in different ways. Oxygen is absolutely necessary for this process to continue and exercise can directly help with oxygenating the brain and stimulating neural activity for this very purpose.
It’s been proven that exercise can actually change the shape and increase the sizes of certain areas of the brain. Research has shown that this is primarily true for the hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls thinking skills and memory. It’s also important to note that the kind of exercise that is the most beneficial for preserving and strengthening this area of the brain is aerobic in nature. Cardio workouts raise the heart rate and keep it there for prolonged periods of time. It’s during these times that endorphins are released into the bloodstream, improving your mood and reducing stress levels. Weight training and other strength training exercises are not as effective for sustaining the heart rate at higher levels.
Regular strenuous aerobic exercise increases the activity of neurotransmitters in the brain. These are the brain’s way of sending messages and signals to every organ in the body. They regulate your heartbeat, digestion, breathing, sleep, mood and concentration. This means they affect your nervous system and mental health in profound ways.
One of these neurotransmitters is known as dopamine. Dopamine is one chemical that is responsible for producing feelings of well-being and contentment. When people abuse drugs and alcohol, dopamine levels in the brain are increased dramatically. This is one reason it’s so hard to quit addictive habits. However, drugs and alcohol increase dopamine levels artificially; regular aerobic exercise can raise dopamine levels naturally without any risks of addiction or adverse effects to your health. Serotonin is another chemical released during strenuous exercise that is known for its mood-improving effects. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that helps to stabilize the mood and control sleep and wake cycles in a way similar to melatonin.
It’s easy to see how regular exercise can be used as a form of therapy for improving your mood. Don’t wait until a bout with depression or anxiety comes along before you take exercise more seriously. There is scientific and medical proof of the benefits of exercise for mental health that you can count on to work for you anytime you need it.