Exercise is good for the mind, body and soul, and prevents cardiovascular disease such as myocardial infarctions and stroke. The American Heart Association recommends that individuals perform 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise a week. This amounts to roughly 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Obesity is an epidemic in the United States, and diet and exercise combined are the only ways to cure it. Besides the physical benefits, exercise is known to alleviate anxiety and depression, and improve cognition.
Depression affects approximately 15 million individuals in the United States each year, and anxiety disorders affect 40 million people in the United States. Although the specific link to depression and exercise is not entirely clear, a vast amount of evidence-based research has shown that exercise improves both of these mental health disorders. Exercise has been shown to release neurotransmitters, endorphins and endocannabinoids, which are naturally occurring brain chemicals that induce a state of relaxation and happiness. The term “runner’s high” incorporates this science and is based on the release of the natural endocannabinoids in the brain, which induces euphoria and decreases the pain threshold in the brain.
Many pharmacologic antidepressants work to increase serotonin and norepinephrine, two major neurotransmitters that are found to be depleted or decreased in the brains of individuals who have depression. Exercise helps replete these specific neurotransmitters in addition to increasing GABA and glutamate, two other neurotransmitters that help regulate mood.
The link between exercise and cognition
A recent study published in The Journal of Neuroscience concluded that both GABA and glutamate significantly increased in the brain in individuals following exercise. The anterior cingulate cortex and the visual cortex were the two specific areas in which these neurotransmitters were increased in the study. These areas in the brain are key players in executive functions such as learning, so this finding shows the direct link between exercise and cognition.
“The researchers measured GABA and glutamate levels in two different parts of the brain immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20 minutes, and made similar measurements for a control group that did not exercise,” according to the University of California, Davis, newsroom. “Glutamate or GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised, but not among the non-exercisers. Significant increases were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which helps regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions and emotion.”
A natural stress and pain reliever
Exercise is a natural stress reliever and pain reliever and can actually be fun. There are many different forms of exercise that can suit the lifestyles, budgets and needs of each individual. From sports such as ultimate Frisbee, soccer and flag football, to yoga and Pilates classes, to outdoor activities such as biking, hiking and swimming — opportunities abound that can benefit mental and physical health. Personal training sessions and group fitness classes are offered at most gyms, and outdoor group boot camps are also becoming popular. Water aerobics, yoga and other low-impact exercises are best for those with musculoskeletal issues such as arthritis. Whichever moderate to intense exercise an individual chooses will cause a surge of happiness, improve cognition and prevent heart disease due to the release of natural chemicals in the brain.
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About the author
Kristen Fuller, M.D., is a medical writer at Sovereign Health, who enjoys writing about evidence-based topics in the cutting-edge world of medicine. She is a physician and author, who teaches, practices medicine in the urgent care setting and contributes to medicine board education. She is also an outdoor and dog enthusiast. For more information and other inquiries about this article, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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