By Dr. Jack Rutherford
When we think of exercise, most of us automatically think of the physical part, like losing weight, building muscle and training to run a 5K. But mental fitness is another benefit of exercise. Here’s how exercise helps us mentally.
Think of your body as a huge chemistry set. Neurotransmitters in the brain are the chemicals that permit signals to be sent throughout the body. These chemicals are important to our health for a number of reasons.
Serotonin is linked to mood and emotion. Too little serotonin can lead to depression, anger management issues, obsessive-compulsive disorder and even suicide. It can also contribute to an increased appetite for starchy foods and sleeplessness.
Dopamine is linked to reward mechanisms in the brain. Too little dopamine is tied to Parkinson’s disease while too much is linked to schizophrenia. Nicotine and other stronger drugs like cocaine, heroin and opium increase levels of dopamine in the brain.
Endorphins are involved in pleasure and pain reduction. This chemical is similar to the opiods (opium, heroin, morphine).
Norepinephrine increases our heart rate and blood pressure which is important for forming memories.
When we exercise, our brains release all of these chemicals and they stay in the body for some time after we’re finished. Increased blood flow to the brain helps increase oxygen supply which in turn improves mental alertness, information processing and perception.
As our levels of stress and tension subside with exercise, our mood is elevated. Problem situations become clearer. Anxieties and frustrations abate. In short, we simply feel better and more alert after exercise.
We also have better sleeping habits. The body’s ability to repair itself is enhanced, allowing us to function at our best the next day. Our body’s immune system also becomes stronger the more we exercise.
The mental benefits of regular exercise should not be undervalued. Whether you’re a hardcore exerciser or new to the fitness game, adopting the fitness lifestyle will not only keep your body in prime condition, it will also improve your body’s chemistry. Strive for the runner’s high.