Exercise, they teach, has profound effects on the structure of the brain itself, as well as providing other more subtle benefits, such as focus, a sense of accomplishment, and sometimes social stimulation, all of which are therapeutic in their own right. And while more is generally better, even a small amount of physical activity, like walking every day, can provide important mental health benefits.
“Being physically active is a very powerful intervention,” said Anders Hovland, a clinical psychologist at the University of Bergen in Norway.
This knowledge is just beginning to be put into practice, says Joseph Firth, a mental health researcher at the University of Manchester in the UK. Ask the hundreds of people who receive mental health care how many receive exercise prescriptions as part of that care. “You won’t find much,” says Firth.
Some of the strongest evidence for the mental benefits of exercise has focused on depression. In 2016, Hovland and her colleagues searched the published literature and identified 23 clinical trials that tested the effectiveness of exercise for treating depression. The exercise was clearly effective. Researchers have concluded in some studies that it is comparable to antidepressants.
And exercise has many benefits. For starters, antidepressants usually take several weeks to show their full effect. Exercise can improve mood almost immediately, making it a valuable addition to initial treatments like medication or therapy, says Brett Gordon, a sports psychologist at Penn State School of Medicine. Plus, he says, exercise can counteract some of the nasty side effects of antidepressants, like weight gain.
Additionally, exercise has few of the negative side effects commonly associated with medications. “Many people with mental health problems are not motivated to start treatment for the rest of their lives and are interested in other options. Exercise can be one of those options,” said Jacob Meyer, an exercise psychologist at Iowa State University.
But researchers are still discovering how muscular exertion works in the brain to improve mental health. For most biomedical questions like these, animal experiments are the first stop, but they are not helpful in studies of mental health issues.
“Mental health is so uniquely human that it can be difficult to make a good leap from animal models,” says Mayer.
just scratch the surface
It doesn’t seem to have much to do with cardiovascular health or muscular strength, which are the most obvious benefits of exercise. Smith says there needs to be something else going on that’s more important than just fitness.
One possibility is that exercise strengthens both the brain and the body. Exercise releases a protein known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF stimulates the growth of new brain cells, which likely includes the hippocampus, a brain region important for memory and learning. Since the hippocampus is often smaller or distorted in people with depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia, increasing BDNF through exercise may be one way that physical activity can help manage these conditions.
Indeed, studies show that people with depression have lower levels of BDNF; in particular, one of the effects of some antidepressants is to increase the production of this molecule. Researchers haven’t directly shown that an exercise-related increase in BDNF reduces depressive symptoms, but it’s a promising possibility, says Hovland.
Exercise can also help treat anxiety disorders. BDNF-stimulated brain changes appear to enhance learning, which is an important part of some anti-anxiety treatments, so it’s possible that exercise improves the effectiveness of such treatments. For example, a treatment for PTSD involves exposing patients to a fearful stimulus in a safe environment, so that patients learn to reset their responses to cues associated with trauma, and the better they learn, the longer lasting it can be. be this answer.
Kevin Crombie, a neuroscientist at the University of Texas at Austin, and his colleagues tested this idea on 35 women with PTSD. After learning to associate a specific geometric shape with a mild electrical shock, the volunteers saw the same shape over and over again without the shock knowing that the alarm was now safe. After a few minutes, half of the volunteers ran for 30 minutes or walked uphill on a treadmill, while the other half did only light movements.
Exercise also stimulates the release of cannabinoids, molecules important for modulating connections between brain cells. This may be another way to reinforce the learning underlying successful treatment of depression, PTSD, and other mental health disorders.
Physical activity also moderates the body’s response to stress and reduces inflammation, which rightly helps people with mental illness. “We only scratched the surface,” says Hovland.
Changing brain structure isn’t the only way physical activity can benefit mental health. Smith says that the habit of exercise alone can help.
For people with mental health issues, doing anything, anything, can divert their attention and prevent them from ruminating. A review of the published literature found that placebo exercise, that is, gentle stretching too light to produce any physiological effect, had Nearly half the beneficial effect on mental health I also did heavy exercises.
Regular workouts also give athletes a clear sense of progress as their strength and fitness improve. Gordon says this sense of accomplishment can help ease some of the burden of anxiety and depression.
Even light activity, really just moving around during the day instead of sitting for hours, can help.
In a study of more than 4,000 adolescents in the United Kingdom, Aaron Kandola, a psychological epidemiologist at University College London, and colleagues found that young adults who engaged in more light activity during the day, Reduced risk of depressive symptoms. of those who spent most of their time sedentary.
Exercise has powerful benefits for people with mental illnesses that go beyond the effects of the illnesses themselves. Firth says many struggle with related issues, such as social isolation and a decreased ability to have fun. Standard medications reduce some symptoms, but do nothing to treat these other problems. Exercising, especially as part of a group, can help improve your mood and enrich your lives.
Importantly, people with serious mental illnesses, such as major depression and schizophrenia, are also more likely to have serious physical health problems, such as obesity, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses. As a result, their life expectancy is 10 to 25 years shorter than that of unaffected people.
“Reducing these health risks is really critical right now,” says Candola. “This is the great cry of exercise: we already know that it can improve physical health. If it also has mental health benefits, it could be a very important adjunct to treatment.”
Bob Holmes is a science writer who lives and practices in Edmonton, Alberta. This article originally appeared well-known magazinean independent journalistic company of Annual Reviews.
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