The following guest post was written by Jeff Baxter, my incredibly insightful brother-in-law who also happens to be a mental health professional. Read on for Jeff’s post about the tight-knit correlation between mental health and exercise. Enjoy!
We tend to differentiate mental health from physical health as though the brain somehow exists completely separate from our bodies. The reality is that the brain is connected to literally every single part of our body. Everything from your fingertip to your heart is connected back to the brain through a complex network of nerves. We also must remember that this connection is a two way street: our brain sends signals to our body, our body sends signals to our brain, and both parties eventually end up changing in response to the other. We have known for a long time that our bodies grow, change, and adapt in response to experience. We go through periods of being in “good” shape, “bad” shape, and back and forth. Broken bones heal, muscle mass is gained and lost, and our cardiovascular system fluctuates in efficiency.
More recently, the field of neuroscience has been documenting the brain’s ability to change in response to experience from the environment. Neuroscientists refer to this phenomenon as “neuroplasticity”: the brain’s ability to physically change in response to experience. This concept interests me as a mental health professional because of its wide scope, including the influence of exercise on the brain.
So the mind and the body are connected, and they shape each other through mutual experience. Physical activity is no exception to this rule. Exercise requires a fury of activity from the brain. A variety of brain regions become enthralled in coordinating the body’s abilities to accomplish the task at hand. Blood rushes to the active areas of the brain, neurons fire, neurotransmitters stimulate surrounding brain circuits, endorphins (endogonous opiates) alleviate pain and create the euphoric “runners’ high” effect, and neurotrophic growth factors are released promoting the growth and consolidation of neural circuits.
The mind and body shape each other through mutual experience. Physical activity is certainly no exception to this rule.
All this brain activity has short and long-term impact on mental health. I did a study during my undergrad where I tested self-esteem (using a validated measure) of people before they entered the gym, and then after they were leaving the gym. I found that people were reporting statistically significant higher self-esteem scores as they were leaving the gym following a workout. As a person who is active playing sports and working out regularly, I can identify with the positive effects of exercise on mental health. When I have improved my athleticism, I have noticed that my self-esteem (how well I regard myself) likewise improves. At the end of the day, I feel much better when I know I have accomplished something, contributed to a team, and improved myself – as opposed to spending a night on the couch indulging in junk food and reality shows. Playing sports like hockey and boxing has connected me to a social network, provided cathartic release of stress, and endorphin rushes from exertion and the experience of pain. My brain is further stimulated by the demands of coordinating my musculoskeletal system in order to mobilize in the effort and utilize the executive function of the brain to perform this effort effectively. In other words, I need my brain to open up a big can of whoopass.
“We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.”
We have all heard the old adage that true beauty exists on the inside and that outer beauty is only skin deep. I agree with this wholeheartedly, but I would offer a twist to this perspective. I would argue that our outsides do reflect the health of our insides. I am not suggesting any norm for what a healthy person should look like, and this is by no means the only determinant of self-perception. What I am suggesting is that when people feel good, they look good, and when they look good, they feel good. I say this because I am certainly no exception to this rule; when I am working out, eating well, and maintaining the look that I want, I feel much better. A recent study found that the more physically active females are, the higher their self-esteem, especially for females that have higher body mass index (Schmalz et al., 2007). So regardless of the body type a person has, physical activity still pays dividends.
“Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.”
The mental health benefits of exercise and physical activity are far ranging. There is evidence confirming exercise improves symptoms of depression (Dunn et al., 2005; Sutherland et al., 2003), anxiety, self-esteem, and self-confidence (Shmalz et al., 2007). Sports help facilitate social relationships, and the development of qualities such as teamwork and leadership. Our bodies and our minds require many things in order to maintain a healthy balance. We were built to move, to use our muscles and our bodies, so get out there and give your body and your mind what it needs.
Written by Jeff Baxter
B.A. Criminology, Hons. B.A. Psychology, MA. Social Work
Currently an Addictions Counselor located in Guelph, ON