Exercise can change the way we think and feel. Whether it’s the “runner’s high” or noticing a more positive outlook on the world after a walk out in the fresh air. There are a few different mechanisms through which exercise can impact our mental health.
When we are in a mental health slump, our thinking becomes rigid and inflexible. We can get stuck in negative looping thoughts which in turn can contribute to feelings of depression and anxiety among other mental health difficulties. Exercise can help to mitigate this by increasing blood supply to the brain. This can generate new brain cells (a process called neurogenesis) and improve communication between existing cells. The result is increased flexibility in our thinking- that is, more capacity to challenge negative thoughts and generate helpful alternative thoughts.
Exercise also facilitates neurochemical processes with important consequences for mood and emotional functioning. It can reduce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol and trigger the production of endorphins. Endorphins are the neurochemicals responsible for “feel good”, euphoric emotions and are also natural painkillers.
In regard to the best intensity of exercise for supporting mental health, there isn’t clear consensus in the research. Some studies suggest that regular high intensity exercise is the most effective intensity for reducing depressive symptoms, however there is ample support for the mood enhancing benefits of low and moderate intensities of exercise too.
Furthermore, some research cautions that repeated high intensity training without adequate rest can have a paradoxical stress-inducing effect on the body. Thus overall, it’s important to tune into how you personally respond to different forms and intensities of exercise. Notice how you think and feel afterwards and develop an individualised routine guided by this mindfulness.
Dr Sophie Muir – Clinical Psychologist
Dr Sophie Muir is a Clinical Psychologist based in Auckland, experienced in formulating and treating a wide range of psychological difficulties.
Life may present you with challenges that cause distress and interfere with your ability to live meaningfully. You may start to notice difficulties at home, at work, and in your social life. She helps clients develop skills to cope with distress, navigate difficult life circumstances, and live more closely aligned with values and goals.