The benefits of exercise for mood, anxiety and stress.

by Cassandra Turp

Regular movement is one of the best things we can do to improve our mental health. Daily exercise helps shift stagnant energy and brings oxygen to every cell in the body, especially the brain.

Exercise doesn’t have to mean hours at the gym, gruelling boot camp or signing up for team sport (although it’s great if you can). Daily exercise can be anything you like, such as a brisk walk with the dog, incidental exercise such as parking further away and walking to work. Workouts could also include classes such as pilates and yoga, or anything as long as you move your body and increase your heart rate. Importantly, you are moving regularly.

Prioritising exercise & movement brings many benefits. Here are some of the top reasons I incorporate movement into my daily schedule and prescribe this for my patients wherever possible.

Improves attention, learning and memory

Exercise profoundly benefits brain function by improving oxygen supply and increasing BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which directly correlates with learning and memory. 

Studies have also found that students with higher physical fitness have higher test scores, better attention, working memory and processing speed.

Prevents cognitive decline

Exercise may prevent or delay the loss of cognitive function associated with ageing and neurodegenerative disease.

Neurotransmitter production

Neurotransmitters, such as serotonin, dopamine and endocannabinoids, are released throughout the nervous system during exercise. These neurotransmitters are responsible for the ‘runner’s high’, or the euphoric feeling often experienced following intense exercise.

Reduces stress

Exercise is a great stress reliever and reduces stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline levels. 

Exercise can also help us to be more stress-resilient, meaning regular exercise can improve our ability to handle stress and may prevent stress altogether. 

Promotes better sleep

Exercise can help you fall asleep more quickly and improve the quality and duration of sleep. In addition, the rise in body temperature followed by the cooling down has a beneficial effect on sleep onset. 

Exercise is also great for de-cluttering the brain before bedtime. 

Improves self-esteem and confidence

Along with feeling fitter and stronger, exercise can improve body confidence and self-esteem. 

Improves vagus nerve tone

The vagus nerve originates in the brain and connects to many body systems, including the gut and the autonomic nervous system (ANS), and plays a crucial role in the stress response. Therefore, supporting healthy vagus nerve tone can improve resilience and recovery from physiological and psychological stress, improve emotional regulation, and improve physical and mental health.

Fosters social connection

Participating in exercise can enhance the possibilities of making social connections and making new friendships with like-minded individuals in the community. It can also be more motivating to have others encourage you and keep you on track with your exercise goals. 

Improves mood and reduces depression

The mood-enhancing effect of exercise in humans has been shown in some studies to be as effective as antidepressant medications. In addition, movement promotes recovery from depression and is without the side effects of many antidepressant medications. 

This article is intended to be informational only and represents the opinion of the author. It is not intended to be used as medical advice and does not take the place of advice from a qualified health care practitioner in a clinical setting. Please check with your healthcare practitioner before embarking upon any of the treatments discussed.