Depression affects 10% of the British population at any one time. Yet despite our understanding of how much exercise affects our mood, many psychotherapists are not promoting the benefits it can bring, and many sufferers are prescribed anti-depressants without exercise being considered as a solution.
It is widely accepted that the mind and body are not two distinct separate entities but rather are involved in complex interactions, with one affecting the other. Think of the placebo effect for example, or how our mood can be low and miserable when we’re not at optimum health. And most people will have had at least some experience of the exercise high, or at least the sense of well being after exercising. Exercise can reduce stress, aid sleep, reduce feelings of fatigue, and reduce symptoms of depression, and give us more energy.
There are four main brain chemicals that are released during exercise; Serotonin, Epinephrine (Adrenalin), Dopamine, and Endorphins. These chemicals are neurotransmitters, forming a chemical link between different brain neurone cells and impacting on how different parts of the brain communicate with each other. Each of these neurochemicals will have a significant effect on our mood. Here we’ll take a closer look at what each one does and consider briefly a couple of other non-chemical ways in which exercise can lift a mood.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter and is probably the most important ‘mood chemical’. It is strongly linked to feelings of well being and happiness; it can elevate mood, increase feelings of happiness and contentment, gives us self-confidence, and installs a feeling of safety and security. In fact, people that suffer from depression have been shown to have lower levels of serotonin in their blood. Serotonin levels are reduced during times of stress or anxiety, as a result of a low carbohydrate diet, and as a result of inactivity. Conversely, serotonin levels peak after a workout or even a bout of moderate intensity exercise.
Adrenalin, also known as Epinephrine, is a hormone and a neurotransmitter which increases heart rate, blood pressure, and dilutes blood vessels and air passages. Adrenalin is released by the brain in order to prepare the body to cope with dangerous and unexpected situations. Body temperature rises and the sympathetic nervous system is stimulated ready for our muscles to be put to work. Additionally, the parasympathetic nervous system that controls other body systems such as digestion, immune response and cell repair is repressed. The dilated blood vessels and air passages allow the blood to become oxygenated faster, so oxygen reaches the muscles, and other organs such as lungs, much quicker. This will lead to an increased and more efficient physical performance for short bursts of time. Adrenalin can make you feel energized and alert, and many people experience an adrenalin buzz after experiencing physically exhilarating situations. Adrenalin levels are raised after high intensity exercise, but can actually be lowered as a result of interval training or lower intensity exercise.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter which is still proving to be a bit of a fascination in the scientific world. It is known that it effect movements, emotions and sensations of pleasure and pain. The neurones that release dopamine are situated deep in the middle region of the brain; the area that controls motor movements. It has also been shown that dopamine effects how people learn and behave. It promotes well being and is linked to the parts of the brain that are activated at times of pleasure, reward and motivation. Endurance based exercise, and performing long duration exercise at moderate intensity will elevate dopamine levels. However, dopamine is also responsible for sleeping and waking cycles; too much exercise can actually lower dopamine levels, which is why if you over do it, too much exercise can prevent you from sleeping well.
Endorphins are group of different chemical neurotransmitters which interact with receptors in our brain to reduce our perception of pain. These natural painkillers are released during and immediately after exercise, and the rise of endorphin levels increases with frequency of exercise. They enable us to disregard, and sometimes not even notice, pain when involved in physical activity. Some people may experience an endorphin rush whereby they experience feelings of exhilaration, euphoria and happiness, all brought on by pain or stress. Endorphins are released during long, continuous workouts, when the level of intensity is between moderate and high, and breathing is difficult.
As well as the production of these natural feel good chemicals, exercise has a couple of other tricks up its sleeve. Despite the fact that energy is being used up and spent during exercise, a consequence of exercise is an actual increase in energy levels. Increased blood circulation causes more oxygen to be circulated to the muscles and brain, resulting in heightened brain activity and greater overall productivity. Long term exercise on a regular basis will also lead to observable body results such as a reduction in body fat and increased muscle tone. Since self esteem is tied very closely to depression, these positive body changes can go a long way to improving a person’s self image and self esteem, and will in turn enable people to feel better about themselves and gain confidence.
So there we have it, it’s not just a myth; exercise really does make you feel good. The biochemistry behind it is pretty intense. Let’s hope that more people and health professionals begin to truly take on board the psychological benefits to be had from exercise, as well as the physical health benefits. Pills.... Who needs them?!
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