By Kevin P. Caputo, M.D.
Exercise is good for the body – we’ve long known this. It can help you lose weight, get stronger and reduce your risk of serious health conditions. But exercise doesn’t just benefit your physical health – it can also have a positive impact on your mental health and mood.
Have a bad day? Feeling stressed? Or are you dealing with depression? Exercise may be the last thing you feel like doing, but it might just be the key to helping you feel better. Here’s how.
When you begin a workout, your body comes under stress or experiences pain – think burpees and squats – which triggers your body’s fight-or-flight instinct. Your brain releases a chemical that protects neurons from the anticipated effects of a long battle – this chemical is called brain-derived neurotrophic factor.
This chemical soothes ruffled neurons to create a sense of clarity, which is why you may feel like a problem is more manageable after you take a walk or go for a run to clear your head.
Simultaneously, your brain releases endorphins to numb pain and enable peak performance.
Endorphins are considered natural painkillers because they activate opioid receptors in your brain that help minimize discomfort. In fact, endorphins are structurally similar to morphine. Endorphins can also cause feelings of general wellbeing and euphoria. It’s this sense of exercise-induced euphoria that gave way to “runner’s high.”
When you exercise, your brain also increases the production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and norepinephrine, which both play an important role in your psychological wellness. Norepinephrine works kind of like adrenaline, causing arousal of your nervous system, helping you stay alert and motivated. Serotonin is responsible for a good mood and feeling calm.
Low levels of both of these neurotransmitters can lead to fatigue, depression and anxiety. In contrast, exercising to increase the levels of serotonin and norepinephrine has been shown to reduce stress and depression.
Exercise may also help reduce depression and anxiety by enhancing your body’s ability to respond to stressors. When you work out, it gives your body the opportunity to practice responding to stress, improving the communication between the systems involved in stress response.
But that’s not all – the effects of exercise well after a workout can also help improve the way you feel inside.
Exercise can serve as a distraction and take your mind off of worries. It can get you away from the cycle of negative thoughts that can feed depression and anxiety.
Meeting and exceeding exercise goals or challenges, no matter how big or small, can boost your confidence. Similarly, getting in shape can make you feel better about your physical appearance.
If you’re exercising at a gym, walking around the neighborhood or taking group fitness classes, it gives you the opportunity to get more social interaction. Meeting or socializing with others, even if it’s just exchanging friendly smiles, can help boost your mood.
About the Author
Dr. Caputo believes a trusting, open relationship is important to facilitate the healing process. He feels it is important for patients to be educated in order to create the best outcome.
To schedule an appointment with Dr. Caputo, please call 610-874-5257.