How exercise can improve mental health

Throughout my journey dealing with depression and anxiety for basically my whole life, I have discovered that exercise has a huge impact on my mental health. Particularly cardiovascular exercise, but any type of intense exercise will do the trick (such as heavy weight lifting, boxing, plyometrics, etc). I first became aware of this during the worst period of my life, when I lived in Spain and my physical and mental health deteriorated and I was SEVERELY depressed, had severe suicidal thoughts/ideation, as well as severe anxiety.

My psychologist always recommended natural interventions to improve my mental health issues, and he recommended that I should exercise before class, because I had a hard time tolerating going to class due to having severe mental health issues. I told him that exercise made me feel better, which was why he recommended that I exercise before class - which ended up being life changing for me. That was the start of immediately resolving my SEVERE mental health issues at the time. The first day I tried it, I immediately felt happy and normal again! I also started to eat better again (my diet was atrocious previously).

Exercise seemed to allow me to get into a "positive upwards cycle". It immediately improved my mood, made me felt happy and motivated so it motivated me to continue, and it also gave me the motivation to eat well. It helped to get rid of my cravings for unhealthy food and I began to crave healthy food. So, during that period of my life exercising was what completely resolved my severe mental health issues. However, since then (It's ben about 4 years since then), I have continued to  deal with mental health issues for various reasons. However, exercise always seemed to improve my mental health greatly.

For the past month or so, I have not been feeling very well at all. I have been having mental health issues nearly every day (depression and anxiety) as well as fatigue. Coincidentally, I have not been exercising regularly at all for months now. I would exercise maybe once every two weeks. It's pretty difficult to get yourself to start exercising again, especially when you are experiencing mental health issues. But I knew it would help me, so I pushed myself to take a cycling class this morning and now I feel great again! It has resolved my lingering depression, anxiety, lack of motivation and fatigue I have been experiencing for quite some time now. 

So anyway, now that I've shared my experience with exercising having such a positive impact on my mental health issues, I will now discuss why exercise can improve your mental health!



BDNF is brain derived neurotrophic favor. Cardiovascular and intense exercise in particular increases levels of BDNF in the brain, which is known as "brain fertilizer", which helps maintain healthy neurons, strengthens the synapses that connect neurons, and promotes the growth of new neurons. This is also important for the prevention of other neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer's. Apparently "voluntary" exercise, or doing a type of exercise that you enjoy increases BDNF levels even more than exercise you dislike or feel "forced" to do. 


Dopamine, serotonin and GABA

Exercise also increases neurotransmitter levels, such as dopamine, serotonin and GABA. It's well known that appropriate levels of these neurotransmitters are necessary for optimum mental health. Dopamine is responsible for drive, motivation, and energy levels. Lack of motivation and low energy is typically associated with depression. Exercise also increases serotonin levels, as well as GABA which helps you to feel more relaxed and calm. Another affect of increased GABA is quieting the "monkey mind" - aka, having racing thoughts. I notice that my mind is much more quiet after doing intense exercise. Yoga is also affective for increasing GABA levels, which is why it's well known for being great for stress relief. 



Exercise also can improve mental health issues by reducing inflammation in the body. It's well known that inflammation contributes to depression. Regular exercise tends to reduce markers of systemic inflammation, such as C-reactive protein. When exercising, your muscles release a protein called Interleukin 6 which has various anti-inflammatory affects, such as lowering levels of TNF alpha, which is a protein that triggers inflammation, and inhibiting signaling of Interleukin 1 beta which also triggers inflammation. There are ways exercise reduces inflammation in the body, such as through increasing levels of another protein called Interleukin 15. 


Creating a "positive upward" spiral

I feel that exercise is helpful for getting you out of a depressive episode, because of how it improves your mood through the previously mentioned mechanisms, thus it will give you motivation to improve other areas of your life as well, such as eating healthier. Which is what I have personally experienced, as previously mentioned. So, exercise can be something that can initiate you to start a "positive upwards" spiral to get out of a depressive episode. It is also helpful for "getting you out of your head" - focusing on doing an activity that brings you into the present moment, such as exercise, is a great way to get out of your head, since a problem with mental health issues is just being in your head and thinking too much.

These are the primary mechanisms of how exercise can improve your mental health. I think that most people with mental health issues would benefit from exercise. However, for me, exercise alone isn't enough - various other factors affect my mental health as well, such as my diet (which is why I also need to eat an anti-inflammatory diet such as the ketogenic diet). Overall, exercise can be a great tool to start improving your mental health! 

Britney Becker