Neurodivergent Learning

The Role of Exercise in Boosting Mental Health

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Neurodivergent Learning

The Role of Exercise in Boosting Mental Health

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As we close out Mental Health Awareness Week for 2023, we wanted to draw attention to the importance of exercise – especially when it comes to mental health.
In our fast-paced and stressful world, caring for our mental health has become increasingly important. While traditional approaches like therapy and medication play a vital role, an often overlooked yet powerful tool for enhancing mental well-being is exercise.
Exercise not only benefits our physical health but also has a profound impact on our mental well-being.


From reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression to improving brain function and stress management, the role of exercise in boosting mental health is undeniable.
Let’s explore the fascinating connection between exercise and mental well-being, uncovering the science behind its effects and how to incorporate it into your life to harness its full potential.

Reducing Anxiety and Depression:

Did you know that regular exercise can help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression? Studies have shown that any kind of exercise provides benefits towards a reduction in anxious feelings and/or depression. In fact, according to Dr. John Ratey, Contributor to Harvard Health Publishing (2019), you can actually deter anxiety and depression completely with a consistent exercise regimen.

So, what does that mean for you?
Well, here’s a couple of points that Dr. Ratey makes about how exercise works against stressors:

  • Engaging in exercise diverts you from the very thing you are anxious about.
  • Moving your body decreases muscle tension, lowering the body’s contribution to feeling anxious.
  • Getting your heart rate up changes brain chemistry, increasing the availability of important anti-anxiety neurochemicals, including serotonin, gamma aminobutyric acid (GABA), brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and endocannabinoids (Ratey, 2019).

Dr. Ratey also mentions that any type of exercise from martial arts to high intensity interval training can support these types of results.

The bottom line is that exercise releases endorphins, which are natural feel-good chemicals that can boost mood and reduce feelings of stress and anxiety. These endorphins can benefit you whether you’re pushing the limit on the treadmill or practicing your latest karate moves in your living room. The intensity of your workout is irrelevant.
What’s more is that it’s actually recommended (if possible) to do your exercising outside. Studies have also shown that being physically active outside provides additional benefits and can significantly reduce stress and difficulty with anxiety (Ratey, 2019).

The amount of time doesn’t matter, either – but it is recommended to utilize something that you enjoy so you can do it consistently and build resilience. So, if you’re feeling stressed out or anxious, grab your phone, head to the nearest park, and practice your karate challenges!

Improve Brain Function and Cognitive Performance

Exercise can also improve brain function and cognitive performance: it has been shown to increase blood flow to the brain, which can improve cognitive function, including memory and attention (Ratey, 2019).

As we mentioned above, exercise affects brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which is a protein that supports the growth and survival of brain cells. BDNF promotes neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and form new connections. Through neuroplasticity, exercise can enhance cognitive function, improve learning, and facilitate the formation of new memories. Additionally, exercise can help reduce inflammation in the brain, which has been linked to a variety of mental health conditions. By improving brain function, exercise can help promote mental clarity and focus, which can lead to better decision-making and problem-solving skills (Ratey, 2019).

Think that’s pretty impressive? Well, listen to this! Exercise has been found to also have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant effects, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in the brain. By combating these damaging processes, exercise helps protect brain cells and supports optimal cognitive function.
Additionally, martial arts can help autistic children develop emotional regulation and coping skills, which can be essential for social interactions. Through mindfulness techniques and controlled breathing, children can learn how to manage stress and emotions, which can improve their ability to communicate effectively and respond appropriately in social situations.

Knowing all of this so far, there is no reason to skip working out! Grab a buddy, go for a walk, head to the gym…whatever it takes to get moving!

Stress Management

Just when you thought that exercise couldn’t possibly have any more advantages…did you know that exercise can also help reduce feelings of stress and tension in the body?

When you exercise, you provide a physical outlet for the tension that can build up throughout the day (emotional and mental as well). Additionally, exercise can help regulate the body’s stress response system, reducing the release of stress hormones such as cortisol. Cortisol can become a huge issue for women, especially women over 40, and exercise is a powerful tool in keeping it under control. Prolonged or excessive exposure to any hormone is detrimental, and regular, consistent exercise allows that delicate balance to stay in check.

Stress can often disrupt sleep patterns too, which can lead to difficulty falling asleep or staying asleep. A consistent exercise pattern has been shown to improve sleep quality because physical activity helps regulate the body’s internal clock and promotes a healthy sleep-wake cycle (Sleep Foundation, 2023).

By getting better-quality sleep, you enhance your ability to cope with stress more effectively, allowing you to feel more refreshed and resilient. It’s also important to have a healthy relationship with sleep because research has shown that insomnia and difficult sleep patterns can result in a drop in immunity, causing greater susceptibility to illness (Sleep Foundation, 2023). A healthy sleep cycle can help promote a sense of calm and relaxation, which can improve overall mental health and well-being.

 

 


With all the benefits that we have mentioned, it seems like a consistent exercise routine should be in everyone’s repertoire. However, we do understand that sometimes, it’s difficult to get into that habit.
The best advice we have is to seek out something that you enjoy, in a setting where you feel comfortable. If you feel better working out with others, fantastic. If you’re more of a solo player, that’s fine too. Any way that you get out and start moving is the beginning of a world of change that will only provide you with positive results…both physically AND mentally.

References

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