elderly couple walks together for mental health

How Does Exercise Improve Mental Health?

When you see your primary care provider, you probably expect them to ask about your exercise habits. And if you aren’t working out regularly, you might expect them to recommend more movement. But what about your therapist? 

More and more therapists are recommending exercise as part of a mental health care plan. 

Yes, your therapist is there to care for your mind. Yes, exercise is primarily a physical activity. But the connection between the mind and the body is powerful, and researchers are just beginning to understand it. 

Create New Brain Cells With Exercise

Only in the past few decades, researchers have come to understand that humans create new brain cells throughout life. In fact, even well into the golden years, people make as many as 1,400 new neurons every day. It’s called neurogenesis, and it can offer a lot of hope for anyone struggling with their mental health.

Mazen A. Kheirbek and Rene Hen, researchers at Columbia University, report that neurogenesis can mean that people with PTSD or anxiety disorders can learn to differentiate between true threats and innocuous things. Neurogenesis may also help people with other mental health disorders, such as depression. 

This is all great news, but there’s one catch: we don’t always do neurogenesis at the same rate. Many different factors impact how quickly people create new neurons. While there is still a lot to uncover about this, it’s becoming increasingly clear that exercise increases the rate of neurogenesis.

So, in short, exercise leads to more new brain cells, and those new cells can help you learn to be happier.

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Exercise Fights Depression

A growing body of research suggests that regular exercise can help prevent or lessen existing symptoms of depression. First, exercise releases a flood of feel-good chemicals that immediately improve mood. This is what creates the infamous “runner’s high.” But exercise’s impact on mood doesn’t stop when that initial high wears off. 

When people sustain low-impact exercise for long amounts of time, the hippocampus region of the brain gets stronger. This is the area of the brain that is responsible for mood. Sustained, low-intensity exercise allows the hippocampus to form new brain cells and make new connections. Detecting a pattern?

Exercise Isn’t Enough Alone

Clearly, exercise can be a powerful part of a mental health care plan. But it’s just one part. While a good workout routine can help you form new neurons and neural pathways, you need to teach those new neurons how to be different if you want to see real change. 

That’s where therapy comes in. With therapy and exercise together, you can change the way your brain works. Your therapist can teach you new coping mechanisms and help you form new patterns in your thoughts, emotions, and behaviors. Then all those new brain cells can help you follow your new patterns. 

Some care plans may require additional support as well. For example, some people require medication management to level out their brain chemistry. While exercise alone cannot cure or completely prevent any mental health disorder, it can be a powerful part of your mental health tool kit. 

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