Body Over Mind Part 1: What Exercise Does to Your Mind

Body Over Mind Part 1: What Exercise Does to Your Mind

The emphasis on physical exercise as a tonic for good health and well-being is more than ever before. Exercise helps to lose weight, look and feel good, maintain a good BMI and keep lifestyle diseases like blood pressure and diabetics in control. A plethora of reasons for people to exercise!

What is a more compelling reason though, is its impact on mental health. Many research studies have shown that exercise helps one to cope better with stress and increases mental well-being. Exercise releases feel good chemicals in the brain; chemicals that can boost your self-esteem, help you concentrate, sleep and look better, improve sex-life and even add years to your life. Irrespective of age, exercise is a powerful tool to feel better.

What is the co-relation between exercise and mental well-being?

Stress is a given issue. Each one of us experiences it in one way or the other. How we experience stress, the impact of it on our body and our mind is very individualistic. We often consider stress to be bad for health. However, some amount of stress is good for us. The right amount of it gives us the impetus to bring out our best.

In the context of exercise, stress response is beneficial. When one begins a workout, the heart rate rises and triggers the body’s fight-or-flight instinct. The brain releases a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor to protect neurons from the anticipated effects of a prolonged battle. At the same time, the brain releases endorphins to numb pain and facilitate peak performance. These endorphins also induce feelings of well-being and can cause euphoria (known as the runner’s high). All while the brain-derived neurotrophic factor is soothing ruffled neurons to promote a sense of clarity. This is why a walk or run is recommended to clear one’s head. 

The useful thing about brain-derived neurotrophic factor and endorphins is that they are addictive, just like nicotine. Smokers find the urge to smoke overwhelming. Similarly, the body becomes addicted to the sense of clarity and well-being that often follows exercise.

Other benefits of exercise:

• Opportunity to meet new people & socialise

• Higher sense of achievement

• Increases focus and concentration

• Higher motivation

• Manage anger and frustration better

• Build a healthy appetite

• Have fun

• Release the free child in you

How much exercise is required for mental well-being?

Various research studies have shown that 20 – 30 minutes of moderate exercise every day helps release those feel good endorphins. Your exercise could be in the form of walking, jogging, climbing stairs, dancing, swimming, yoga, pilattes, stretching… the list is endless.

My personal story of exercise and well-being

I have personally experienced the correlation between exercise and mental well-being. The benefit I derived was immense.  Here it goes...

I have been a fitness enthusiast for almost 20 years now. I exercise 4-5 days every week. My current routine includes dance aerobics, walk, one day a week at the gym and running. I took up running 2 years back and have run 2 half-marathons till date. I am now training for the 3rd one.

10 years back I had relocated from India to Moscow, Russia, for 3.5 years. As you know, it snows 6 months of the year in Russia. The sun is rarely visible during this time. The day there is snowfall, everything looks pristine white and beautiful; almost like a fairy tale. But the sky largely remains gloomy and dull. Ironically, it’s freezing cold on the days that the sun comes out and so, one thinks multiple times before venturing out. As a result, exposure to sunlight is restricted for almost 6 months. 

Various research studies have shown that this has a huge impact on the mind. Many people go into depression due to lack of sunlight. Sunlight is a natural source of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates appetite, sleep, memory and mood. Researchers from the Baker Heart Research Institute in Melbourne found that levels of serotonin are lower during the winter than the summer.

The research team noted that the only factor that affected participants’ moods was the amount of sunlight they were exposed to on any given day. More sunlight meant better moods; less sunlight lead to symptoms of depression. The study suggests that low levels of serotonin directly correlate with seasonal affective disorder, which most often occurs during winter months.

I had already read about this and many friends who lived in Moscow had issues with depression. This was going to be my reality. I could either just go with the flow or take control of things. I chose the latter. 

What helped me enjoy the winter days in Moscow was a regular exercise routine. I had invested in exercise DVDs, tensions ropes and yoga mats before I left India. I ensured that I continued to exercise at least 3-4 days a week. During the winter months, I could see the difference in my mood the days I exercised and the days that I didn’t. 

Based on numerous research findings and my own personal experience, I can strongly say that physical activity is an all out winner for the body and mind. 

My colleagues and I will be publishing a series of articles on mind and body. We look forward to hearing from you about your own personal fitness journey, feedback and comments.

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