One of our primary goals in therapy is to guide ourselves to a happier, more fulfilling and complete life. It is a commitment, but one that has amazing outcomes for those willing to take the leap. It is just one of several lifestyle and self-care changes that are available to us to help us improve upon our mental health.

John Ratey, a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, wrote a wonderful book entitled “SPARK” that is well worth a read. The book explores the scientific literature on the effects of exercise on mental health – especially aerobic exercises, like jogging, bike-riding and hiking. Research has found that moderate and high-intensity exercise has many amazing benefits, far beyond healthier hearts and bodies.

BDNF Protein and Exercise

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) has been referred to as “fertilizer” for the brain. It is a brain-boosting protein that helps to maintain the life of your brain cells as well as grow new ones. BDNF plays a huge factor in this “neuroplasticity” (check out my upcoming blog), and low levels of it have been associated with anxiety, depression, poor memory and brain degeneration such as dementia and Alzheimers. Increases in BDNF in the motor cortex and hippocampus have been associated with enhanced learning and memory.   

What the Research Says About Exercise and Mental Health

Everything in “SPARK” is based on research and interviews with leading scholars. The findings are so impressive that it could be argued that exercise is one of the single most important lifestyle changes that a person can make to improve their mental health and brain functioning.

 Here are just some examples: 

  • Exercise Permanently Helps Your Body Use Energy Better – There are these insulin receptors throughout our bodies that regulate glucose levels. These receptors are responsible for utilizing energy in a healthy way. Exercise permanently creates more of these receptors, leaving less of the unused energy that damages cells or that leads to anxiety. 
  • Exercise Keeps Us Calm – Research has consistently shown that exercise can calm both the mind and body, reducing both stressed and anxious feelings. It lowers levels of cortisol and adrenaline, the two stress hormones, thereby leading to greater levels of relaxation. It also tires the muscles, which in turn relaxes tension in the body. 
  • Exercise Fights Depression – In some countries, psychologists and as well as psychiatrists recommend exercise as a top agent in improving mood. Long jogs trigger endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, which increase feel-good states. It also increases neural connections involved in neuroplasticity, which researchers believe produce antidepressant effects. 
  • Exercise Sharpens Cognition – Regular physical activity increases the volume of the hippocampus (the learning and memory center of the brain), the development of new neurons and the infiltration of blood vessels into the brain. All of this means more clarity of thinking, better recall, sharper concentration and better decision-making.
  • Exercise Makes Us More Socially Active – Exercise builds confidence and also puts us in a position in which we’re surrounded by people, and thus, encourages communication. It creates a sense of drive to connect (a very human need), which can motivate us to branch out in social ways. 

Start Your Exercise Journey

It’s the new year, when many people begin their resolutions. “Fitness” is, every year, the number one resolution that people make. But most people struggle to commit to a fitness routine, either because they cannot find the time or they have other priorities.  Yet, while the physical health benefits of exercise are well known, not many people know the psychological benefits. For those who have struggled to take control of their mental health, knowing these benefits of exercise may be that extra motivator you need to continue prioritizing your fitness for years to come.   

TIP: If you want to maximize your learning capacity, try to study or take in new knowledge after exercising. Blood flow increases to the brain post-exercise in which BDNF level remains elevated, so it is the perfect time to be learning something new. Now, you’ll be soaking up new information like a sponge!