Running on Empty - Exercise as a mood-altering activity


As enthusiasts and active participants in a number of physically demanding sports, we are all aware of the obvious benefits of exercise: weight management, improvement in flexibility, stamina, coordination, and cognition, and as a bulwark against common diseases associated with the modern sedentary lifestyles. You’ve also likely experienced the sheer rush of endorphins that comes after an exhilarating round of exercise.

That rush of good vibes – a literal deluge of feel-good chemicals sweeping through your brain during aerobic exercise – is currently being clinically studied as a treatment for chronic anxiety, depression, and other mental health conditions. In fact, exercise may be as beneficial as medications in mild to moderate cases – without the risk of harmful side effects.

Studies have found that the increase in blood flow to the brain during exercise stimulates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which communicates with several regions of the brain in charge of controlling our base emotions. The limbic system and hippocampus oversee motivation and mood, while the amygdala generates “fight or flight” responses. Regular exercise is even known to alter thought processes and neural mapping, hard-wiring the brain to overcome mild to medium cases of depression, anxiety, and ADHD.

Reaping these benefits does not require a huge commitment or very great effort. In fact, it is healthier to start small and build up a regular routine. Moderate exercise for as few as 30 minutes, three times a week has been shown to reap huge mental and physical rewards, and that time can be split between two fifteen-minute sessions, or even three ten-minute sessions. The point is to make regular exercise a weekly priority.

In addition to these physiological responses, the social benefits of exercise have been hypothesized to play a role in improved mental health. Regular physical activity can distract you from daily concerns, improve your self image and confidence, and encourage social interaction through sports, shared gym spaces, or other organized events – such as races!

Those currently under treatment for mental conditions should of course seek the advice of their medical professional before making any alterations to their medication regimen, but the myriad benefits of regular physical exercise can be enjoyed in the meantime.