Getting hot and sweaty might not be great for comfort but it’s brilliant for mental health. If getting hot and sweaty isn’t your thing, stay with me – there are other ways to get the full mental health benefits of exercise without the intensity and your brain will love you for it – like, love you. Exercise is the wonderdrug-but-not-a-drug of the mental health world. Volumes of research have testified to its incredible capacity to strengthen mental health, and now we’re starting to uncover why.
There is no doubt that exercise is as important to mental health as it is to physical health. People with anxiety and depression have lower levels of vital neurochemicals. The exact cause of these lower levels is unclear and researchers are working hard to understand the full picture. What we do know is that regardless of the cause, when the levels of these neurochemicals are restored to healthy levels, the symptoms of anxiety and depression tend to fade.
Neurochemicals are chemicals in the brain that allow brain cells to communicate with each other. Everything we do depends on the strength of this chatter between brain cells. The better the communication between cells (as in faster and stronger) the stronger that part of the brain will be, and the more effectively the different parts of the brain will work together.
Two of the neurochemicals that have an important role in mental health, particularly anxiety and depression, are glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid – let’s call it ‘GABA’ for short.
New research published in the Journal of Neuroscience has found that exercise restores the levels of these two neurochemicals to healthy levels.
How exercise strengthens the brain against anxiety.
Some brain cells are born with the personality of puppies. They are easily excited and quick to fire up. We need these. They are healthy and normal and help us to function when we need to be ‘on’. It is because of these excitable neurons (brain cells) that we can think quickly, act quickly and remember. In the right amount and at the right times, these neurons are little gems.
To stop the excitable neurons getting too carried away and causing trouble, the brain has a neurochemical, GABA, which is the brain’s ‘calm down’ chemical. GABA plays a key role in the way the body responds to stress. Its main job is to settle the brain cells that get a little too playful and over-excited. If the levels of GABA in the brain are low, there’s nothing to calm these over-excited neurons.
Sometimes too much of a good thing is wonderful. Sometimes it causes anxiety. When there are too many excited neurons firing up for some fight or flight action in the absence of any real need, anxiety happens. Anxiety is the brain doing what healthy brains are meant to do, but a little too much.
Most of the substances that ease the symptoms of anxiety (alcohol, medication) work by boosting GABA in the brain. A group of drugs that are commonly used for anxiety are benzodiazepines. They work by mimicking the role of GABA in the brain. These drugs have been prescribed widely for anxiety but research is now discovering that extended term use has enormous potential to harm the brain. Exercise is a healthy, non-synthetic way to elevate the same neurochemicals that are targeted by anti-anxiety medication.
How exercise eases depression.
Sometimes we need neurons to fire, but sometimes they can fire unnecessarily (as in anxiety) and we need them to calm down. The balance of excitement and inhibition of neurons needs to be kept in check. When the balance is knocked out, it can lead to anxiety or depression.
Glutamate is the main chemical in the brain that is responsible for stimulating the neurons that need to fire. It is involved in memory, emotions and cognition. When the levels of glutamate are too low or too high, depression happens.
When the levels of glutamate are too high.
The role of glutamate in the depression is complicated and depends on the levels in particular areas of the brain. Elevated levels of glutamate have been found in the brains of people with depression, specifically in the basal ganglia, an area that has a key role in motor control, motivation and decision-making. High levels of glutamate in this part of the brain have been associated with anhedonia (an inability to experience pleasure), and slow motor function.
When glutamate is too high, it can become toxic to neurons and glia (the cells that make sure the brain stays healthy). There is extensive research evidence that supports the relationship between systemic inflammation and depression. People with depression have all the primary markers of systemic inflammation (caused by stress, diet, toxins, allergies, illness). Researchers now think that one of the ways that inflammation may do this is by increasing glutamate levels in critical areas of the brain.
‘We think that one of the ways that inflammation may harm the brain and cause depression is by increasing levels of glutamate in sensitive regions of the brain, possibly through effects on glia.‘ – Ebrahim Haroon, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, Emory University School of Medicine and Winship Cancer Institute.
And when the levels of glutamate are too low.
A large body of research has found that people with depression have low levels of glutamate in certain areas of the brain. These are the areas that are changed through exercise.
According to the STAR*D trial (Sequenced Treatment Alternatives to Relieve Depression), the largest clinical trial study of treatments for major depressive disorder and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, only about one third of people who use anti-depressants find long-term relief from their symptoms. For the remaining two thirds, treatment with an anti-depressant alone is not enough to relieve their depression.
Clearly something is missing. An abundance of research has shown that exercise may be the key. The research is early but it gives hope that exercise might be an effective alternative or adjunct to antidepressants. The researchers note that exercise as an alternative might be particularly important for people under the age of 25, who can sometimes experience more side effects from SSRIs, the widely used class of antidepressants that synthetically adjust the levels of neurotransmitters in the brain.
How exercise builds a happy brain.
Exercise elevates the levels of glutamate in the areas where it needs elevating.
Research published in the Journal of Neuroscience showed that after exercise, significant increases in glutamate were found in the visual cortex (which processes visual information) and the anterior cingulate cortex (which in involved in keeping heart rate steady, some cognitive functions and emotion). People who did not exercise did not show these increases.
‘Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored. Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.’ – Richard Maddock, study lead author and professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California.
The effects of exercise on glutamate were still evident in the week following the exercise session.
During exercise, the brain uses up a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbs, but up until recently, we haven’t understood what the brain does with all of that energy. Now we have an idea. It seems that the brain is slurping up energy to make more of the neurochemicals that the brain needs to stay healthy and strong.
And if vigorous exercise isn’t your thing …
If you firmly believe that under no circumstances should ‘vigorous’ ever be paired with ‘exercise’, then not to worry – science has your back too. New research has found that exercise and relaxation like yoga can ease anxiety. Relaxation and exercise aren’t two words that you would typically expect to find together (or maybe that’s just me) – but there they are. They’ve finally found each other and we’re all the better for it.
How to start exercising when your favourite thing is ‘not exercising’.
Exercise can be a hard thing to get into if avoiding it is one of the things you do spectacularly well. The key is to start. The more you do it, the easier it will get. Pretty soon, you’ll feel the difference it makes to your mood, even if you’re still waiting for your muscles to arrive.
Find what you love.
Anything that gets your heart pumping will be good for you, but the more you enjoy it, the more you’ll stick with it. Think team sports, walking up a hill outdoors, dancing, martial arts, kicking a ball, riding a bike or a brisk walk. You’re looking for long-term changes in brain health and mood, which will mean a long-term plan.
‘Vigorous’ means whatever is vigorous for you.
You just need to get your heart going. This will look different for everyone, depending on where you’re starting from. It doesn’t have to mean punching out 45 minutes on the ‘you’ve got to be kidding’ level of on an exercise bike. It could be a brisk 20 minute walk or 8-10 minutes of going up and down the stairs a couple of times a day. Whatever works for you. Try for something you can do at least five times a week.
Ahhh the feel-good. You know it’s coming.
Exercise triggers the release of endorphins and other feel-good chemicals. Know that they’re coming – but you’ll have to work for them. Some people will thrive on getting hot and sweaty, but for those of us who are more worried about not collapsing than thriving, knowing that the feel-good is coming can keep you on track. Be mindful of how you feel in the hours after you exercise and use this to tap into some needed motivation when you need to. Think of it as therapy. Or just remind yourself that this (session) too shall pass.
Just get your shoes on … and then decide.
Doing something hard involves a series of simple things put end to end. If you hate the thought of exercise, don’t tell yourself that’s what you’re doing. Your body will go wherever your mind puts it. Start with the first simple step. Let’s say, clothes. Tell yourself that you’ll get dressed into something that would be okay to exercise in and then you’ll decide what to do next – it might be exercise, it might be changing back into your comfy pants and eating spaghetti in front of tv. Once you’re dressed, you may as well put your shoes on. That’s all you have to do. After that, then you can decide. When your shoes are on, walk outside the front door and then see how you feel. Once you’ve done this you’ll have some momentum up and it will be easier to keep going than it will be to stop. Just tell yourself you’re going to only take one small step. It’s ridiculous how convincing you can be.
Be nice to you. OK?
If you miss a day, don’t let that slow you down. You haven’t wrecked it and it isn’t all for nothing. Just keep going tomorrow. If you whip yourself too hard when things don’t go right, the temptation to pull out all together will be immense.
And finally …
Brains were meant to be in bodies that move. Fortunately, they don’t need to move that well. Modern living has meant that we have everything at our fingertips. This is a beautiful thing – having to hunt for food and move between caves is something we can all do without, but we need to make sure that we give our stone-age brains what they need to thrive. One of the most vital of these is exercise. Though we are still working to understand why exercise is so important to mental health, we know for certain that the relationship is there, and that it’s a powerful one.
Like this article?
Subscribe to our free newsletter for a weekly round up of our best articles