Can exercise improve your mental health?

(Photo by: Andrea Leopardi)
(Photo by: Andrea Leopardi)

Written by: Brandon Grentz

Editor’s note: The following article is written in partnership with Counseling Services and the Southern Accent.

There were typically two types of students in high school when it came to P.E. class. There were the students that ran to the gym in excitement, and then there were the students that folded their arms and slowly slid their feet as they walked into the gym to their “required” activity. 

Now, there is no judgment on either reaction to P.E., but the question was often raised, “Why do we have to do this?” The response was always that it was part of the curriculum because exercise and movement are important to health and well-being. It has long been said that exercise improves physical health. And don’t worry, if you didn’t like P.E. class, there are plenty of other forms of exercise that you might like. 

As mentioned previously, mental health and exercise have been positively linked, but it has taken time to really understand how this relationship works. Research has indicated that exercise has a considerable effect on brain structure itself. There are also more subtle changes in focus, a sense of accomplishment and better energy overall, which is therapeutic in its own way. 

So how does exercise affect your brain? According to a 2022 article in Smithsonian Magazine, exercise triggers the growth and maintenance of nerve cells in your brain. One area of growth is located in the hippocampus region of the brain, where a lot of learning and memory takes place. According to the Journal of Affective Disorders, this part of the brain typically gets smaller or distorted when anxiety and depression are present. Exercise can help generate growth in the hippocampus, encouraging helpful behaviors and processes, especially when paired with therapy, learning and healthy coping skills. 

Exercise also enhances the regulation of emotional and cognitive processes, like learning to tolerate discomfort and developing a sense of mastery and confidence. In physics, according to a 2016 article in Forbes, Newton’s third law of motion states that “an object in motion stays in motion, and an object at rest stays at rest until acted upon by an unbalanced force.” This is true in many things and can be used as an analogy for habits and change as well. 

Sometimes we need to cause discomfort and shake things up to get things moving. For growth to happen in our physical and mental health, we need to stretch things beyond their typical movement. Exercise is a protective factor and can work as either a preventative measure or a rehabilitative measure in improving both physical and mental health. 

So, exercise can be many things and happen in many ways. Find an activity that works for you. Take a walk on the greenway, go to the gym, play in intramurals, learn a new dance, ride a bike on the biology trails or swim in the Hulsey pool. Look less at doing things as an obligation, and just try to have fun and move, so that you can feel better physically and mentally by encouraging processes in your mind and body that generate positive outcomes. 

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