Using Exercise to Improve Brain Function and Mood

Antidepressants aren’t the only solution when you’re feeling blue. Research shows that exercise can improve brain function and mood.
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Antidepressants aren’t the only solution when you’re feeling blue. Research shows that exercise can improve brain function and mood.

If you’ve been feeling blue, chances are exercise is one of the furthest things from your mind — it’s natural to seek out the comfort of a Netflix binge on the couch to take your mind off things, or to spend a little extra time snoozing in bed. But movement, from taking a walk to resistance training, is being hailed as a safe, nondrug alternative for easing signs of depression and other mood disorders.

“Exercise is good not only for the body, but research is showing it has an extraordinary capacity to improve brain function and mood,” says Robert Zembroski, DC, DACNB, MS, author of Rebuild: Five Proven Steps to Move from Diagnosis to Recovery and Be Healthier Than Before (Harper Wave, 2018). “From cognitive decay in the aging brain to alleviating depression and anxiety, exercise can improve brain health for a lifetime.”

Research on Exercise and Stress Relief

According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, nearly one in 12 U.S. adults reports having depression. And while it may seem easier to choose mood-altering prescription medications, they often come with an endless list of potentially dangerous side effects.

“Exercise represents a cost-effective and easily implemented intervention for depression with no real side effects,” says Dr. Zembroski. “For instance, data out of Current Behavioral Neuroscience Reports demonstrate that walking showed far greater improvement in depression, anxiety, and stress-related symptoms for those who regularly walked than for those who didn’t.”

  • Depression. In a study found in Psychosomatic Medicine, participants were randomly assigned to one of four groups for 16 weeks: supervised exercise in a group setting; home-based exercise; antidepressant medication; or a placebo pill. At the end of the study, researchers found those assigned to the aerobic exercise group had the same improvements in depressive symptoms as those taking antidepressant drugs.
  • Sleep. There is a strong link between mood and sleep — something you’re probably acutely aware of after even one sleepless night. “One of the symptoms of mood disorders like depression and bipolar is sleep disturbance or insomnia,” says Emily Mendez, MS, EdS, a mental health expert with On The Wagon. “Lack of sleep only makes irritability and mood issues worse. Poor sleep can also interfere with cognitive processes, making it harder to make decisions and cope with everyday stressors.” A study in the journal Mental Health and Physical Activity found that 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity each week provided a 65 percent improvement in sleep quality.
  • Confidence. Physicians often use low self-esteem as an important indicator when diagnosing depression. “Exercise helps you feel more confident and has social benefits, as well,” says Mendez. In fact, physical activity has been shown to both directly and indirectly improve self-esteem.

Check out: Three More Reasons to Exercise.

How much exercise do you need to improve mental health?

If you’re wondering how much exercise you need to improve mental health and boost your mood, there’s good news: You don’t need to spend hours on end in the gym or exhaust yourself on your treadmill. The Primary Care Companion says that just 30 minutes of exercise three days a week is sufficient to improve mental health and begin alleviating symptoms of depression and anxiety.

“As each person is different based on physical capabilities and schedule, it’s best to create an exercise plan and schedule that works for you,” says Dr. Zembroski, who relies on high-intensity interval training to boost his own mood and spur creativity. “For my patients with anxiety, depression, and/or cognitive challenges, I suggest 30 minutes of moderate exercise five to six times a week. Since we don’t want that to become stressful, I suggest they break the program into two 15-minute sessions, which works just as well. The point is to move the body with some exertion in order to activate the brain for better mental health.”

There is no one type of exercise that is better than others to improve mental health. For instance, a study of 30 people with clinical depression, published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, found that taking yoga classes twice a week may help ease depression, thanks in part to deep breathing. These findings align with a November 2016 study from the University of Pennsylvania that determined breathing-based meditation practice helps reduce major depressive symptoms.

Likewise, according to researchers at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, aerobic workouts — such as jogging, rowing, swimming or cross-country skiing — can increase specific feel-good chemicals in the brain. These chemicals, including endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, are what produce that so-called “runner’s high.”

“It’s important to choose the type of exercise that you enjoy the most,” says Mendez. “Some people enjoy group exercise, and others prefer to work out alone. To get the most benefit, it is important to choose something enjoyable.”

So, take a walk with intent to exercise (not just to smell the roses), hop on a bicycle, dance to your favorite music, or try a yoga flow class — all of these activities are sure to help boost mood and mental health.  

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