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How Physical Fitness Benefits Mental Health

Twenty-seven percent of health insurers predict mental and behavioral conditions will be among the three most common conditions in the years ahead, and 26 percent say these conditions will be among the most expensive. As people struggle to balance unexpected traumas, work, family life, and financial stress, mental health disorders are becoming more and more prevalent. Inevitably, the cost of care for mental health is also rising. So how can you improve and maintain your mental health without adding more financial burdens to your plate? Medical experts say physical fitness benefits mental health and the link has become impossible to ignore.

The Mind-Exercise Connection

Harvard Medical School says aerobic exercise is just as crucial for your mind as it is for your heart. In addition to benefiting the body, there is evidence that exercise counters depression and dissipates stress.

James Blumenthal, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist at Duke University, performed a series of randomized controlled trials to explore the mood-exercise connection. He and his associates prescribed patients either exercise, antidepressant therapy, or a placebo pill. After four months, he concluded that exercise was generally comparable to antidepressants for trial patients with major depression.

A year later, Blumenthal followed up with the patients and found that exercise seemed to not only help them treat depression in the initial trial, but it also prevented relapse over the following year. Some have even found that exercise could help fight panic attacks.

Why It Works

Exercise is proven to help the body’s overall ability to respond to stress by forcing the central and sympathetic nervous systems to communicate. In addition to lowering stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, it also stimulates the chemicals that make us feel good—endorphins.

Working out also reverses stress-activated brain damage by encouraging the production of neurochemicals, such as norepinephrine. This neurohormone improves comprehension and mood. It seems the higher the dose of exercise, the better the effects.

Serotonin is another essential neurotransmitter that helps regulate the mind and body. This chemical regulates sleep cycles, and studies show that sleep has protective effects on the brain. It also contributes to overall well-being and happiness by coordinating the nervous system. A healthy diet, light, and exercise all help raise serotonin levels.

Another benefit of putting your body in motion is improving your memory and creativity. Experts say doing cardio causes neurogenesis, the creation of new brain cells, which boosts overall brain performance. Exercise also strengthens the hippocampus, which mitigates mental decline and memory loss.

Behavioral Factors

If you’ve ever gone for a run or taken a walk after a stressful day, you probably felt better afterward. But the positive effects of physical exertion stem from more than the boost in neurochemicals. As you see the positive changes in your body that exercise brings, you feel more confident.

A sense of accomplishment, more energy, and mental clarity are all positive effects of exercise that can spill over into other areas of your life. You may find that the more you modify your behavior to eliminate stress and practice self-care, you feel better emotionally. It’s amazing how feeling more in control of your life can give you a greater sense of wellness.

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