By Dr Saliha Afridi, a clinical psychologist and Managing Director of The LightHouse Arabia
It is estimated that about 30% of the global population is considered to be physically inactive. As we become more sedentary, as many of us did during the height of the Covid-19 pandemic with our days spent on Zoom, we also increase our chances of feeling ill, both physically and mentally. We all know how exercise is good for the body, but most of us don’t realise that exercise is great for mental and brain health, too. So much so that it is used to treat conditions such as depression, anxiety and even Attention Deficit Disorder.
Here’s what happens to your brain and your mental health when you exercise: Produces that feel-good feeling: Exercise kicks up endorphin levels, the body’s famous ‘feel good’ chemical produced by the brain and spinal cord that produces feelings of happiness and euphoria, and dulls physical pain. Exercise not only releases endorphins but also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals play an essential part in regulating your mood and improving your appetite and sleep cycles. Even 30 minutes of moderate exercise (or 15 minutes of intense exercise) a few times each week has been shown to alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety, so much so that some doctors recommend trying out an exercise regimen for these conditions before turning to medication.
Builds mental resilience against stress: It might seem counterintuitive that you would exert stress on the body in order for it to be less stressed; however, that is indeed what happens when you exercise. When you exercise, all the systems involved when the body’s stress or fight or flight responses are activated, and the different systems of the body, which are controlled by the sympathetic and central nervous system, are practising communicating with each other. This essentially prepares your body to be better equipped to cope with the stress response when it actually happens, making you more resilient to future stress.
Improves creativity and learning: Exercise optimises your mindset, prepares the brain to learn, and helps create new brain cells, especially in the hippocampus, our learning and memory centre, so we can retain what we have learned and ensure we are alert and motivated. An increase in the hippocampus can also slow the effects of Alzheimer’s disease and other neurological disorders. It also improves your processing speed and cognitive flexibility, which is the ability to shift thinking between different tasks – all skills required in intellectually demanding jobs.
Builds and protects the brain: Exercise increases our level of the BDNF gene (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). The BDNF’s role is to improve the functions of brain cells, encourage new brain cells to grow and protect brain cells from stress and cell death, especially in the hippocampus. For example, individuals diagnosed with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s, and Huntington’s disease have low BDNF. Lower levels of BDNF are also detected in individuals with depression and anxiety. So when you exercise or are engaging in low to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, you can stimulate your BDNF and create new brain cells – a process called neurogenesis – and protect your brain from stress and other neurological disorders. It also improves overall brain performance.
Gives a sense of control in times of uncertainty: When you commit to showing up, even if it is for just a 15-minute walk first thing in the morning, you start the day off by keeping a pledge to yourself. This improves confidence, self-esteem, and self-trust while giving a sense of control, certainty and predictability in times of uncertainty.
So, where should you start? If you have been sedentary and don’t know where to start, begin with five minutes of walking per day and slowly build up three to four minutes every few days until you get to 20 or 30minutes. If you have been exercising for some time, make sure to get a mix of aerobic and strength training, since many of the benefits of exercise result from low to moderate levels of aerobic exercise. Avoid exercising close to bedtime and try to do it first thing in the morning while under the sun to give the most benefit to your brain and body.
While I am by no means saying that exercise is a magic solution to all of life’s difficulties, I am saying that a strong body will help you maintain a strong mind and spirit.