Benefits of physical activity on our mental health

When we hear about physical activity, we usually tend to think about weight loss and much less about its benefits for our mental health. So we have decided to dedicate two posts to the mental and physical benefits of exercise. This first post summarizes some of the findings about how our mental health can profit from physical activity of different kinds. In the near future, we will also dedicate a post to the benefits of exercise on our physical well being.


Mood enhancement

Regular exercise (both cardio and weight training) can decrease negative mood. Another very interesting factor is the effect of exercise duration on negative mood. It has been suggested that the longer you exercise the more your negative feelings will decrease [1]. Exercises like aerobic workout or aerobic dance do also increase positive mood, even after a single session [2]. In another study in women, regular aerobic exercise of about 5 hours a week led to a decrease in negative mood states, such as anger, contempt, disgust, sadness, hostility, fear, shame, shyness, and guilt [3]. This also included the mood related premenstrual symptoms some women experience .


Decreased depression and anxiety

Have you ever heard that the doctors prescribe physical activity for depressed individuals? Although people with depression are usually less active than non-depressed people, increased physical activity, such as aerobic exercise or strength training, can significantly reduce their depressive symptoms [4].

People with anxiety and panic disorder can also benefit from physical exercise as it reduces anxiety symptoms and was shown to have an efficacy similar to that of meditation or relaxation [4].


Increased Confidence and Self-esteem

Most studies about the benefits of exercise have been about its benefits on healthy individuals. The following study, however, is about the positive effects of exercise on individuals with intellectual disability. These researchers found that a self-selected pace of running exercise (for example, about 30 minutes of moderate pace) could enhance the self-esteem, self-confidence and social acceptance as well as positive mood in individuals with intellectual disability [5].

In another study in 12-year old children, physical activity was positively correlated with higher self-esteem [6]. In another study, 174 older adults (with average age of 65) engaged in a 6-month exercise intervention. People were divided into two workout programs: walking (aerobic) or stretching (toning). They found significant increases in self-esteem after completion of the intervention in both conditions. However, when following these individuals up for another 6 months (after the first 6 month intervention was finished), they found that the self-esteem decreased significantly, and this  decrease was higher  in the “walking” group compared to the “stretching” group. The authors suggested that this difference was because “walking” is more general and “toning” is more specific than walking since people also used toning bands therefore [7], and probably specific workouts can benefit us more than the general ones.


Creativity enhancement

In a study about creativity and exercise, participant’s creativity was assessed after a 1.5 mile (2.4 km) run. They found that running increased creativity independent of its duration [8]. In addition to running, other regular aerobic workouts, such as aerobic dance, have also been shown to improve creative thinking [2].


Memory and Learning

Physical activity seems to also improve memory and learning in both humans and mice. The memory formation and storage, were assessed in mice after a 3-week running period, where the mice had access to a running wheel. During this time, the mice had also been trained to find an escape platform in a water tank. The researchers would put the mice in a water tank with six platforms, where one of the platforms would be 1 cm below the water surface so that the mice can sit on it. Then, their memory was tested depending on the time it took them to find this platform under the water. The best memory performance was observed in those that had been trained to find the escape platform immediately after the running period [9]. The brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) protein, is a major player in the mechanisms important for the memory formation and storage. The BDNF levels were increased immediately after the exercise period and showed a positive correlation with cognitive improvement and memory performance on day 4 after the exercise intervention. So, it appears that the time of learning is key in order for exercise to have its positive impact on memory and learning [9].

Similar results were found in humans. Regular physical exercise improves cognitive functions and reduces the risk for age-related cognitive decline, such as Alzheimer disease [10, 11]. However, it also appears to have immediate influence on our memory and learning. In a study in healthy adults, participants had to learn new vocabulary and their memory was assessed after high impact (2 sprints of 3 minutes at increasing speed with blood lactate level > 10 mmol) or low impact (40 minutes of running with blood lactate level of 2 mmol) running. The BDNF and catecholamines (dopamine, epinephrine, norepinephrine) were assessed before and after the exercise interventions as well as after learning. They found that the vocabulary learning was 20% faster after higher impact physical exercise, causing the strongest increases in BDNF and catecholamine levels. Higher and more stable BDNF levels during learning and after intense exercise were related to better short-term learning. On the other hand, higher dopamine and epinephrine levels were, respectively, responsible for intermediate and long-term learning of the new vocabulary. So, it appears that BDNF, dopamine and epinephrine are responsible for improved learning and memory after physical exercise [12].


Improved sleep

Exercise seems to have positive and unique sleep promoting effects. However, as balance and moderation in everything is key, intense physical activity can also increase the feeling of fatigue which may in turn disrupt our sleep. To be able to benefit from the positive effects of exercise on our sleep we must consider the exercise intensity, type of exercise (should not be too intense) and the exercise timing in relation to our sleep time [13]. Researchers suggest that to experience the beneficial effects of exercise, we must exercise close enough to our bedtime to stimulate the thermoregulatory response, but also not too close for it to have a disruptive impact. It is in general recommended to exercise 5 to 6 hours before bedtime and not closer than three hours. Exercising for longer than two hours (overtraining) must be avoided since it can also disrupt our sleep [13].

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1) Rocheleau, C. A., Webster, G. D., Bryan, A., & Frazier, J. (2004). Moderators of the relationship between exercise and mood changes: Gender, exertion level, and workout duration. Psychology & Health, 19(4), 491-506.

2) Steinberg, H., Sykes, E. A., Moss, T., Lowery, S., LeBoutillier, N., & Dewey, A. (1997). Exercise enhances creativity independently of mood. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 31(3), 240-245.

3) Aganoff, J. A., & Boyle, G. J. (1994). Aerobic exercise, mood states and menstrual cycle symptoms. Journal of psychosomatic research, 38(3), 183-192.

4) Paluska, S. A., & Schwenk, T. L. (2000). Physical activity and mental health. Sports medicine, 29(3), 167-180.

5) Vogt, T., Schneider, S., Abeln, V., Anneken, V., & Strüder, H. K. (2012). Exercise, mood and cognitive performance in intellectual disability—A neurophysiological approach. Behavioural Brain Research, 226(2), 473-480.

6) Tremblay, M. S., Inman, J. W., & Willms, J. D. (2000). The relationship between physical activity, self-esteem, and academic achievement in 12-year-old children. Pediatric exercise science, 12(3), 312-323.

7) McAuley, E., Blissmer, B., Katula, J., Duncan, T. E., & Mihalko, S. L. (2000). Physical activity, self-esteem, and self-efficacy relationships in older adults: a randomized controlled trial. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 22(2), 131-139.

8) Gondola, J. C. (1986). The enhancement of creativity through long and short term exercise programs. Journal of Social Behavior & Personality.

9) Berchtold, N. C., Castello, N., & Cotman, C. W. (2010). Exercise and time-dependent benefits to learning and memory. Neuroscience, 167(3), 588-597.

10) Riley, T., Holman, M., Holman, S., Head, S., Zylberberg, J., & Berra, N. Exercise and Alzheimer’s Disease.

11) Adlard, P. A., Perreau, V. M., Pop, V., & Cotman, C. W. (2005). Voluntary exercise decreases amyloid load in a transgenic model of Alzheimer’s disease. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(17), 4217-4221.

12) Winter, B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F. C., Voelker, K., Fobker, M., Lechtermann, A., … & Knecht, S. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of learning and memory, 87(4), 597-609.

13) Driver, H. S., & Taylor, S. R. (2000). Exercise and sleep. Sleep medicine reviews, 4(4), 387-402.


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