Q&A: Why Does Exercise Makes You Feel Good & Improve Your Physical and Mental Health

Most of us believe that exercise makes us healthier, happier, more content, less anxious and less depressed? But is this true and what is the evidence? Why does exercise improve our mood and sense of well-being? How do these improvements occur?

What is the Evidence that Exercise is Good for You?

A recent Norwegian research study showed that any amount of exercising , no matter how small, promoted better physical and mental health in both male and female test subjects compared with those who had no exercise. The differences were particularly pronounced for older individuals ( more than 65 years old).

A total of 4500 participants (56 female; 44 male) were included in the study. The subjects were aged between 19 and 91 years (mean age of 53 years). About 40% of the subjects were generally inactive and did not exercise and the study assessed the association between exercise and health.

The assessment were made using the The 'SF-8 Health Survey' method that includes eight questionnaire items with multiple-choice responses:

Physical (PCS-8) and Mental (MCS-8) health summary scores were derived from the SF-8 survey data were compared for the groups that exercised of were sedentary.

The study found that there was a strong association between Physical Activity and Health Related Quality of Life, particularly for older subjects.

The link was stronger for physical than mental health in both genders and age groups.

An earlier major review study found that exercise, physical activity and physical-activity interventions have beneficial effects on both physical and mental-health outcomes.

1. Overall, how would you rate your health during the past 4 weeks?

2. During the past 4 weeks, how much did physical health problems limit your usual physical activities (such as walking or climbing stairs)?

3. During the past 4 weeks, how much difliculty did you have doing your daily work, both at home and away from home, because of your physical health?

4. How much bodily pain have you had during the past 4 weeks?

5. Dining the past 4 weeks, how much energy did you have?

6. During the past 4 weeks, how much did your physical health or emotional problems limit your usual social activities with family or friends?

7. During the past 4 weeks, how much have you been bothered by emotional problems (such as feeling anxious, depressed or irritable)?

8. During the past 4 weeks, how much did personal or emotional problems keep you from doing your usual work, school or other daily activities?

What are the General Health Benefits of Exercise and Physical Activity?

Regular exercise and physical activity are extremely important and beneficial for long-term health and well-being. For a comprehensive resource, see "Physical Activity and Health: A Report of the Surgeon General"

The major benefits were:

  • Lower the risk of premature death
  • Lower the risk of developing and/or dying from heart disease
  • Lower high blood pressure or the risk of developing high blood pressure
  • Lower high cholesterol or the risk of developing high cholesterol
  • Lower the risk of developing colon cancer and breast cancer
  • Lower the risk of developing diabetes
  • Lower body fat levels or maintain body weight
  • Maintain and Build healthy bones, muscles and joints
  • Lower depression and anxiety
  • Increase general psychological well-being
  • Enhanced recreation, work and sport performance
  • Strengthens your heart
  • Generates higher energy levels
  • Reduces blood pressure
  • Improves muscle tone and strength
  • Improves appearance making you look fit and healthy.

What are the Mental Health Benefits of Physical Activity?

Reduced Depression and Anxiety

The major benefits of exercise are to ease depression and anxiety. These benefits occur in a number of ways that may include:

  • Releasing brain chemicals that may ease depression (endorphins and neurotransmitters). Exercise induces the releases of chemicals called endorphins which generally lower your perception of pain and induce a good feeling in your body that similar to that of morphine. This induces the feeling known as a 'runner's high', a feeling of euphoria and well being that is experienced by many people who go running or engage in other forms of exercise. Endorphins act like analgesics and as sedatives. But the body's own endorphins do not lead to addiction or dependence. However many runners can get depressed when they cannot continue their regular exercise and many can become obsessive and set 'run every day goal' that many not be wise nor achievable.
  • Reducing immune system chemicals that can worsen depression
  • Increasing body temperature, which may have calming effects
  • 'Brain Flush' effect induced by increase heart rate that clears the head and removes stress that can cause headaches and a general reduced mental agility.

Emotional and Psychological Benefits of Exercise

Exercise has many psychological and emotional benefits. There is an excellent review of the literature on physical activity and mental health which is summarized below:

  • Gain confidence - Achieving exercise goals or meeting challenges, no matter how small, can provide an increase in your feelings of self-worth. Getting in shape and meeting goals can also provide a better self-image and help you feel better about the way you look.
  • Shift your mind away from negative thoughts - Exercise can be a wonderful distraction that turns off your troubles and breaks the cycle of negative thoughts that triggers depression and anxiety. You learn to relax for 30 minutes or an hour and exercise can become similar to mediation as you focus on your regular breathing pattern.
  • Get more social interaction - Group Exercise may help you get out and socialize with others - its always good idea to exercise with friends. These contacts and sessions with your friends can help improve your mood and outlook on life.
  • Learn to cope in a healthy way - Doing positive things and setting goals may help you to manage depression or anxiety in a healthy way through regular exercise sessions. This may avoid the tendency to overeat or drink alcohol to cope with your problems. Going for a walk or a run is a good way to reset your mental state and get peace of mind in a healthy way.
  • Improving Mood and Emotions - The direct link between psychological well-being and physical activity and has been confirmed in many large-scale controlled surveys. Exercise can improve your mood and there is a positive feed-back effect in the response of other around you.
  • Boost to Your Quality of life - Regular moderate exercise have been shown to generate a better health-related quality of life for people with depression and various mental disorders. In these studies quality of life was measured in terms of social functioning, vitality, mental health, bodily pain, physical function, extent of life's experiences, physical health and general health and feeling of well-being.
  • Self-esteem - Exercise boost the sense of physical self-worth and generally improves how you feel about yourself. This includes body image and perceptions of how others see you. Physical self-worth promotes mental well-being feelings and this is often a major benefit of an exercise program. The positive effects of exercise on self-esteem applies particularly to children and young adults.
  • Social activity and the sense of mastery - Improved body image and completion of an exercise routine and the positive benefits it has on self-image can generate a feeling of mastery over ones destiny. Solitary exercise has been shown to be poor in overcoming depression and social activities are critically important. Exercise activities can generate psychological benefits by generating feelings of self-mastery, self-control, engagement and social integration.
  • Sleep - Studies have shown that people who have regular exercise have a reduce incidence of disturbed sleep, but the reasons for this have not been well established. Regular exercise can benefit some poor sleepers. High exercise rates improves the sleep patterns good sleepers to a modest extent, particularly for prolonged exercise. The sleep patterns of unfit people often improves when they exercise.
  • Brain functioning - Many studies have shown that older adults who exercise regularly display better mental performance than those who are unfit, or less fit. The link between fitness and mental performance depends of the task. Those tasks that require rapid responses and focused attention show the pronounced effect from fitness and exercise.

How much Exercise is Required for Mental health Benefits?

Most studies showed that exercising three times a week for about 30 minutes of exercise of moderate intensity was enough. Reduced depression benefits ma require exercise for 30 minutes on five or more days a week. Both anaerobic and aerobic exercises have been shown to be beneficial for mental health.

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