Regular exercise can benefit the body in many ways, helping men and women maintain healthier weights and lower their risks for developing potentially deadly diseases. Though many people are quick to associate exercise with its physical benefits, those hours spent on the treadmill also can boost brain power.
According to Dr. Barry Gordon, professor of neurology and cognitive science at Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions and coauthor of “Intelligent Memory: Improve the Memory That Makes You Smarter,” exercise has a direct impact on the brain. That’s because exercise works directly on brain tissue, improving the connections between nerve cells, creating new synapses, growing new neurons and blood vessels, and improving cell energy efficiency. So while many people may begin an exercise regimen with a goal of trimming their waistlines or toning their bodies, they might be happy to know that those physical benefits are accompanied by several cognitive benefits as well.
As the American Psychological Association acknowledges, the connection between exercise and mental health is hard to ignore, and the APA notes that the following are just a few of the mental benefits men and women might reap from regular exercise.
Many people feel great after exercising, especially if that exercise comes at the end of a particularly stressful day. However, those extra laps on the track or those hours spent on the treadmill don’t just pay short-term dividends. In a controlled trial overseen by Duke University researcher and clinical psychologist James Blumenthal, sedentary adults with major depressive disorder were assigned into one of four groups: supervised exercise, home-based exercise, antidepressant therapy, or a placebo pill. Those in the exercise and antidepressant groups had higher rates of remission than those in the placebo group, and Blumenthal concluded that exercise was generally comparable to antidepressants for men and women with major depressive disorder. In addition, in following up with patients a year later, Blumenthal found that those who continued to exercise had lower depression scores than those participants who were less active.
Blumenthal’s study was not the only one to conclude that exercise can have a positive impact on mood. In a review of 11 studies that examined the effects of exercise on mental health, Boston University professor of psychology Michael Otto and his colleagues found that exercise could be a powerful tool when treating clinical depression, and even recommended clinicians include exercise as part of their treatment plans for depressed patients.
Antidote to anxiety
Some researchers, Otto included, have begun to examine the effects of exercise on treating and possibly preventing anxiety. The body’s nervous system responds quickly when people feel frightened or threatened, often causing the body’s heart rate to increase and sweating and dizziness to occur. Those people who are especially sensitive to anxiety respond to these feelings with fear, and that makes them more likely to develop panic disorders. But Otto and fellow researcher Jasper Smits of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University studied the effects that regular workouts might have on people prone to anxiety. Since exercise produces many of the same physical reactions, such as sweating and an elevated heart rate, the body produces when responding to fear or threats, Otto and Smits wanted to determine if exercise might help people prone to anxiety become less likely to panic when experiencing fear or threats. In studying 60 participants with heightened sensitivity to anxiety, Otto and Smits found that the subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program exhibited marked improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared to those participants who did not take part in the exercise program. Otto and Smith concluded that this improvement was a result of the exercise group participants learning to associate the symptoms common to both fear and exercise, such as sweating and an elevated heart rate, with something positive (exercise) instead of something negative (anxiety).
Regular exercise benefits the human body in numerous ways, not the least of which is its impact on the brain. More information on the link between exercise and improved mental health is available at www.apa.org.