It is no secret that exercise is good for our bodies. We’ve been told this fact over and over again by parents, doctors, psychiatrists, and more. Exercise keeps our muscles strong, our hearts healthy, and can prevent diseases like high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis. But did you know that simply moving your body for 30 minutes per day has immediate and protective benefits in the brain that can help people who are suffering from psychiatric disorders?
Plain and simple, the last thing that most people suffering from psychiatric disorders want to do is get their bodies moving. Many times, people who are suffering from anxiety or depression are told it’s important to get outside and walk. It’s true—fresh air and taking a walk can help to reduce symptoms of psychiatric disorders, but getting that exercise has positive neurological effects that people may not realize.
Exercise’s Effects on the Brain
Working out regularly can, in fact, change brain biology. A molecule by the name of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) helps the brain to produce neurons. It has been shown that aerobic exercise (or exercise that increases heart rate) can have a positive impact on BDNF levels. In addition, regular exercise has anti-inflammatory effects, which is important, because emerging research proves there to be a link between anxiety, depression, and inflammation. If that’s not enough, a single workout can increase neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. All of these neurotransmitters help to regulate and elevate mood. A study even found that exercise may be an effective depression treatment even without the use of psychotherapy.
Exercise also positively affects your prefrontal cortex and your hippocampus, which can help combat anxiety and depression. Your prefrontal cortex is responsible for your personality, your focus, and your decision-making. Your hippocampus helps you to form new long-term memories, as well as connect emotions to memories. Patients with depression show lower levels of activity in the prefrontal cortex compares to their non-depressed counterparts. Similarly, people who suffer from depression have a smaller hippocampus. The more you work out, the bigger and strong your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus get.
How to Integrate Exercise into Your Day
You don’t have to sign up for a gym membership to get the proper amount of exercise per day, although that is one route to go. Getting 30 minutes of aerobic exercise three to four times a week may sound overwhelming, but it can be broken down throughout the day to make it more manageable. Here are some tips to get your heart rate up.
- Choose the staircase over the elevator.
- Walk an extra lap around the block.
- Strive for two fifteen-minute workouts a day.
- Walk or bike to work.
- Spend half an hour on some household chores.
- Go for a hike.
- Do 50 jumping Jax during commercial breaks while watching tv.
Exercise vs. Psychiatric Medications
When we think of traditional psychiatric medication for depression and anxiety, we typically think of SSRIs and SNRIs. After all, these are generally considered the first line of defense against mental illness. When we consider that SSRI and SNRI stand for serotonin reuptake inhibitor and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, we see that serotonin and norepinephrine are two of the neurotransmitters that are naturally increased through exercise. While exercise may not replace psychotherapy and medication, it can work in conjunction with it to create a more comprehensive treatment plan.
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