Exercise & Mental Health

We've known for some time that exervise has positive effects on the brain. Researchers at Duke University demonstrated several years ago that exercise has antidepressant properties. Other research has shown that exercise can improve the brain functioning of the elderly and may even protect against dementia. How does exercise improve mental health?

One theory is that some of the benefits of exercise are due to exercise triggering the production of endorphins. These natural neurotransmitters are chemically similar to opiates such as morphine. They appear to be produced as natural pain relievers in response to the shock that the body receives during exercise. Some researchers are beginning to question whether endorphins are responsible for exercise's tendency to improven mood. Studies show that the body's metabolism of endorphins is complex, and there are probably additional mechanisms involved in the mental health effects of exercise.

Other studies have found that exercise boosts activity in the brain's frontal lobes and the hippocampus. We don't really know how or why this occurs. Animal studies have also found that exercise increases levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters have been associated with elevated mood, and it is thought by some that antidepressant medications also work by boosting these chemicals. (But antidepressants may also work by causing the brain to grow brain cells.)

Exercise has also been shown to increase levels of "brain-derived neurotrophic factor" (BDNF); a substance is thought to improve mood. This may also play a role in the beneficial effects of exercise. BDNF's primary role seems to be to help brain cells live longer, so this may also explain some of the beneficial effects of exercise on dementia.

What is known is that most of us feel good after exercise. Physical exercise seems to be good for our mental health and for our brains as well as our bodies. Someday we will understand it all better -- but we can start exercising today.


Sumarized from Jupiter Media

John Briley. "Feel Good After a Workout? Well, Good for You." The Washington Post, Tuesday, April 25, 2006.

James A. Blumenthal, et al. "Effects of Exercise Training on Older Patients With Major Depression." Archives of Internal Medicine, October 25, 1999.

Michael Babyak, et al. "Exercise Treatment for Major Depression: Maintenance of Therapeutic Benefit at 10 Months." Psychosomatic Medicine, September/October 2000