One of my favorite, favorite shirts I’ve seen in a while is the one that says “Fitness? More like fitness whole pizza in my mouth!” It gets me every time, and want to give the creator of that shirt a high five for combining two of my favorite things, misdirection humor and really bad puns.
I’ve noticed recently in our culture, there has been this stigma with physical fitness that looks down at exercise as a chore. A grueling hardship, that if taken on will lead to sweat-soaked clothes, bouts of spontaneous crying, and the inability to walk up stairs for days.
We don’t like exercise. And when we sell people on it, what are the benefits we tell to one another? Usually something about “It’s good for your heart.” Or “it helps you lose weight.” While those are good and true, we are missing one huge benefit. Our brain.
In the past few decades, more studies are showing that over anything, the greatest benefits exercise provides our body is in our brain.
When we exercise our body releases important chemicals
We heard people talk about a “runner’s high.” Well, physiologically, there is some truth to this statement . When we exercise regularly (discussed in more detail at the end), there are these chemicals called neurotransmitters that are released and have powerful effects on our brain. The big three are Dopamine, Norepinephrine, and Serotonin.
Dopamine and Norepinephrine
Dopamine and norepinephrine serve different functions, but it is important to talk about them together when we talk about mental health in context with counseling.
Dopamine is connected to motivation and our reward systems. With low dopamine, we see a decrease in drive. Our drive to get up, eat, talk to our parents, or study for a test. If you have ever wanted to buy a new thing, reach a new goal, or accomplish anything, you can thank dopamine for that.
Norepinephrine has ‘attention’ as its main focus (pun intended). When we regularly exercise, norepinephrine increases and we see an increase in our ability to concentrate. So if you have a big project to accomplish, the best advice is to exercise before.
When thinking “Mental Health,” think of examples like, but not exclusively, ADHD. ADHD’s main issues revolve around attention and controlling motivations. Medications for ADHD, such as Adderall, boost dopamine and norepinephrine in the brain to help those focus on a goal. So exercise can be a great partner to those who need to that extra boost of motivation and focus.
Serotonin is connected to mood, aggressiveness, and anger. It is one of the bigger key factors to our mental health discussion, being linked to major depression and anxiety when low. Serotonin is an interesting chemical, and one that is a strong point for using exercise for benefiting our mental health.
For the most part, a lot of these chemicals are released from our brains. Serotonin, on the other hand, is different. It is estimated that 90% of our serotonin receptors is actually in our gut. When you exercise, you breathe deeply. Something that is called “diaphragmatic breathing.” Those deep breaths push on your gut. Your gut, in turn, pushes on the vagus nerve (a bundle of nerves that run down your spine) which then triggers a relaxation response and releases serotonin from your gut into your blood.
This is what SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), like zoloft, help our body do. When this medication is taken, it blocks some serotonin, forcing the body to produce more. Like zoloft, when we exercise, our body releases this chemical into our body and relaxes us.
Studies show that regular exercise has a positive effect on those with mild, moderate, to severe depression. In fact, one study from Arizona State University found that patient who reported moderate to severe depression found the greatest reduction in depressive symptoms through regular exercise. So when it comes to points like this, there are fewer and fewer reasons not to add exercise as a way to help increase our outlook on life.
Increased Self Image
Now, we may see this one as a pointless add on, but it’s a powerful motivator. If we work out regularly, we will at some point see things either change on the scale or in the mirror. When that happens it gives us an extra pep in our step and we have that positive little reward (dopamine) for seeing what we worked for has paid of in some way.
Our self image can be a powerful motivator in the way we interact with and view the world around us, so if dropping a notch on your belt or seeing your shirts fit better helps you get through the day a little better, it is something you should shoot for.
Next steps: What exercises to do and how much?
The word “exercise” has been thrown around a lot. What is really enough? What does it really mean? Some say about 6 hours a week of “aerobic exercise” (walking, running, swimming). This can be a daunting number, so here is a good rule of thumb: 30-45 minutes of exercise activity, 3-5 times a week. That seems a little more digestible for most.
However, for others, this still may be too much. So remember to be realistic. Start where you are. If one day a week is the best you can do, start there. The key is to push yourself and move towards growing. Making it hard on yourself is why many of us identify with the snarky pizza fitness shirt in the first place. So take it easy at first, but make an effort and see the rewards on your mental health.