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5 Positive Effects of Physical Activity on Mental Health

Most of us are familiar with the physical benefits of regular exercise. After all, what is the first thing that comes to mind when someone mentions working out?

If you’re like most, then you probably think of weight loss, muscle gain, athleticism, or physical strength. To be sure, these are incredible benefits, shown to improve quality of life and health.

But physical activity offers much more than that. People from all over the world have said that regular physical activity has been the catalyst for life improvement, and this can largely be attributed to the mental health benefits it provides.

Here are five of the life-changing psychological benefits:

It Improves Cognitive Function and Memory

Research has repeatedly suggested that regular exercise leads to improved cognitive function, memory, and ability to focus.

One significant reason as to why that is likely has to do with the increased blood flow to the brain, which allows for more oxygen and nutrients to travel to the brain.

Research has also found that regular exercise stimulates the hippocampus to grow in size. This part of the brain is responsible for navigation, decision-making, and memory (particularly long-term).

These benefits seem to be right in line with other scientific and anecdotal evidence, suggesting that physically-active people tend to think more clearly, recall things more easily, focus better, and even make decisions more easily.

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It Melts Our Stress Away

One of the most significant mental benefits of physical activity is the impact it can have on our stress. More specifically, its ability to melt it away.

You see, as you exercise, your brain begins to release endorphins – a group of hormones which primarily serve to suppress pain but also bring about optimism, clear-mindedness, and general euphoria.

If you’ve ever walked back home from an awesome workout, feeling happy and optimistic, you’ve likely experienced the feeling first-hand. It’s also known as runner’s high.

This feeling can often last for hours and has been shown to help decrease self-reported stress levels in people. 

Once you immerse yourself in physical activity (be it a workout, dancing session, a jog in the park, or something else), you leave all worries behind you. By the time you’re done, the stressful day feels like a distant memory from weeks back.

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It Battles Depression

Exercise is widely regarded as the most underrated antidepressant out there, and for good reasons. But first, a short preface:

Dr. William Walsh, a prominent figure in neuroscience and founder of the Walsh Research Institute, has stated that depression is a very serious condition and is far from a simple case of the blues. According to Dr. Walsh, depression can often be brought about from a disbalance in brain chemistry, and thus, serious measures must be taken to combat it.

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Now, while we still don’t fully understand depression and what factors may cause it, research is largely in agreement on one thing:

Regular physical activity is a reliable strategy to alleviate symptoms of depression, and even help cure it for some individuals. There is a strong scientific explanation for that effect, which largely has to do with the release and elevation in endorphins, dopamine, and serotonin.

Endorphins are released in response to physical activity to suppress pain, but they also bring about euphoria and happiness following a workout. 

Dopamine is a huge player with regards to motivation and reward. For example, the happiness you enjoy as you achieve something through hard work can largely be attributed to dopamine’s effects. 

Some researchers suggest that regular physical activity (which triggers the release of dopamine) can help improve dysregulations in the dopamine system, and, theoretically, alleviate symptoms of depression.

Finally, we have serotonin. Researchers have been trying to understand the relationship between depression and serotonin for decades now. While we understand that low serotonin doesn’t necessarily cause depression, increasing levels of the neurotransmitter can bring about feelings of happiness, optimism, and well-being.

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It Leads to Better, More Restful Sleep

Physical activity is inherently great for the body and mind. But we can’t forget that it’s also a stressor, and the longer and more intense it is, the greater the stress-response from the body becomes.

As you perform physical tasks, you fatigue your muscles and deplete them of their stored energy (glycogen). This also affects your joints and connective tissues, as well as the central nervous system.

Because physical activity stresses the body, too much of it can be bad because it can bring about an over-fatigued state, also known as overtraining. But when you do just enough physical activity – such as by following a solid exercise program – it stimulates longer and more restful sleep.

Part of this is due to the increased demand for recovery. Another factor has to do with the increase in serotonin levels. This is an important neurotransmitter which plays a significant role in the synthesis of melatonin – a hormone responsible for the feelings of relaxation, sleepiness, and reduced alertness come night time.

These mechanistic effects have also been backed by some human trials, which suggest that physically active people tend to sleep better. Some studies have also found a correlation between low levels of serotonin and decreased sleep length, particularly the ever so important restorative non-REM sleep.

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It makes you more confident

Whether we’d like to admit it or not, confidence plays a huge role in our lives. Though having too much can cause unnecessary problems, having too little is also destructive.

As with most things, there needs to be a healthy balance, and research has been painting an interesting picture in recent years. 

It appears that physically active people also tend to be more confident. There could be many reasons as to why that is (both psychological and physiological), but we’ll take a look at two plausible factors:

For one, physical activity tends to help us get and stay in good shape. This has been seen to be a potent confidence-booster both anecdotally and in observational studies on people.

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Second, there’s also an argument to be made regarding the relationship between energy levels and confidence. It’s been well-documented that physical activity makes us more energetic, which itself has been found to make us more confident (at least in the short-term). 

And I’m sure you can attest to this:

Think of a time when you, for one reason or the other, felt incredibly productive and energized. Chances are, you also felt more outgoing and more confident around others.

In any case, there are likely numerous factors at play here, and certain changes trigger other positive ones that ultimately allow us to feel more confident in ourselves, our abilities, and our appearance.

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5 Positive Effects of Physical Activity on Mental Health
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