Words: Claire Thomson (she/her)
There’s a reason why the Stevenson Building is always busy, why students make a conscious effort to join sports clubs and stay active, and why many athletes claim that exercise is the best therapy. People exercise for different reasons, whether that be to stay fit, to prevent serious health conditions (such as heart disease, obesity, stroke or diabetes), to lose weight, or for the social aspect that it can provide. Exercise is well-known for its physical health benefits, but it also has numerous mental health benefits. Exercise can help with mental illness and improve mood, reduce anxiety and depression symptoms, and enhance cognitive function. This is because, when we exercise, our bodies release a variety of brain chemicals such as endorphins, dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, which play a significant role in regulating mood, motivation, and attention.
Both a scientific and social approach can be adopted in examining the influence of exercise on the brain. Firstly, endorphins are natural painkillers that produce a sense of euphoria and pleasure during and after exercise as well as having the ability to reduce stress and anxiety levels and promote feelings of calm and well-being. Similarly, an increased level of dopamine, which regulates motivation, reward, and pleasure, can lead to improved mood and increased feelings of pleasure and satisfaction. Playing a role in controlling mood, appetite, and sleep, serotonin is connected to a happy feeling, and can decrease (or ease) symptoms of depression and anxiety. Additionally, an increase in norepinephrine, which is connected to the flight-or-fight response, can result in heightened alertness and attention. These hormones often bring about what is known as a “runner’s high”; stress hormones are reduced, and antidepressant-like effects are gained from physical activity.
Exercise can also help with mental illness by reducing inflammation, improving sleep, and increasing social interaction. Regular exercise has the potential to decrease levels of inflammation in the body, which has been linked to a range of mental health issues, including depression and anxiety, as the increase in heart rate during physical activity pumps more oxygen around the body and into the brain. The oxygen saturation and angiogenesis (blood vessel growth) both occur in areas of the brain that are associated with rational thinking as well as social, physical, and intellectual performance, therefore augmenting social interaction.
In addition to the chemical and physiological changes that occur in the brain, exercise can also have a positive impact on cognitive function. Researchers have found that physical exercise leads to structural changes in the brain, including an increase in the growth of brain cells in the frontal and hippocampus areas, which control memory and thinking. There is also evidence that these changes have the ability to enhance cognitive functions, including attention and information processing as well as influencing the rate of cognitive decline, which can occur due to ageing.
From a social perspective, exercise can have a powerful impact on relationships, social well-being, and mental health. Exercise is an excellent way to meet new people, whether it is joining a sports club or being surrounded by others at the gym, which can help to combat feelings of isolation and loneliness, and thus improve mental health. As exam season approaches, physical exercise for social interaction becomes more important as students are prone to spending long periods of time alone in front of screens and sacrificing social lives for a chance at good grades. Furthermore, regular exercise can improve self-esteem and confidence as people tend to develop greater physical strength, flexibility, and endurance.
Regular exercise has been proven to be an effective way to boost brain function. These benefits are not limited to any specific age group as exercise has been shown to have positive effects on the brain at all stages of life. Whether it’s going for a walk around Kelvingrove Park with friends during a study break, spending 30 minutes doing yoga at the end of an intense day in the library, or an early morning swim before the start of the grind, incorporating regular exercise into a daily routine can have significant long-term benefits for brain health and overall well-being.