Exercise and Mental Health: How they Go Together
Exercise and mental health can actually interact in some pretty surprising ways. Sometimes mental and physical health hygiene can help each other out but they can also hurt each other.
Here, we’ll explain how to play the two together and use one to improve the other. We’ll also talk about situations in which exercise and mental health don’t mix and what you can do about it.
How Your Body and Mind Communicate
Without getting too deep into the science, your body releases these chemical messengers in response to physical and mental stimulation. The interesting thing is that these chemical messengers have both physical and mental effects – a bridge between exercise and mental health.
When you work out, your body releases a bunch of chemicals meant to keep your muscles in the fight. But, they also boost your mood.
Exercise and Endorphins
We’ve talked about exercise and endorphins on this site before. Endorphins are a class of natural pain-killer that your body releases when you work out.
Your body releases endorphins when you exercise to make your muscles feel better when they’re sore but also as a sort of motivation for when you’re tired.
We often hear about endorphins and exercise in discussions about jogging. The feeling that you get from a rush of endorphins during workouts is often called “runners’ high.” But if running isn’t your favorite workout, that’s fine. Different exercises release different amounts of endorphins.
Dopamine and Serotonin
Endorphins aren’t the only neurotransmitters released when you exercise. Your body also releases dopamine and serotonin.
Dopamine in particular is a part of your body’s reward system – a series of feel-good chemicals that your body releases when you do healthy activities.
Unfortunately, there’s a bit of a catch-22 here for some people. Dopamine deficiency is one of the classic symptoms and causes of clinical depression. So, exercise can increase your dopamine levels but if your dopamine levels are already low, it can be hard to exercise.
In this case, exercise and mental health can be a bit of a tug-of-war.
Is there Risk of Addiction?
You might have recognized the name “dopamine.” Particularly if you have any experience with or interest in addiction.
Dopamine is such a powerful feel-good chemical, that a lot of drugs work by latching on to dopamine receptors and hacking the reward center in the brain.
So, if exercise causes the release of dopamine, is it possible to be addicted to exercise? Technically, yes. You shouldn’t let that scare you off, however.
Technically, you can get addicted to all kinds of activities, including other activities that release dopamine. This happens when your brain becomes convinced that the only way to get those feel-good chemicals is to engage in that one particular activity.
So, how do you guard against it?
Have a well-rounded appetite for pleasure. If you have a number of hobbies, interactions, and activities that you enjoy, your brain shouldn’t be latching onto any one of them in an unhealthy way. Exercise and mental health should be a happy combo, not a scary one.
Some aspects of exercise and mental health have less to do with all of those messy brain chemicals and a lot more to do with, well, just your mind.
While getting addicted to exercising isn’t a real fear for most people, some of the connections between psychology and exercise can be a little tenuous.
Exercise and Self-Esteem
Discussions of exercise and mental health often have to do with self-esteem.
Exercise can improve your self-esteem in a number of ways. For one thing, those chemicals discussed above that get to your brain when you exercise make you feel good about everything. Including yourself.
Further, for many of us, working out is part of a goal. We want to lose weight or up how much we can deadlift. The brain loves goals, so any time that you work toward or achieve your goal, your mind does a victory lap.
Finally, your mind is all about self-perception. If you’re losing weight, building, or toning muscle, it can make you feel great about yourself.
Unfortunately, it can also make you feel down.
For many people – usually men, but sometimes women – working out can be a cyclical cause and symptom of body dysmorphia. This is a group of mental health conditions in which a person has an unrealistic and poor self-perception – another fight between exercise and mental health.
Body dysmorphia is responsible for many eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia but it can also lead to an unhealthy obsession with working out and eating right. If you push your body too hard, it can be dangerous.
Unfortunately, because body dysmorphia is a mental health disorder, it can be hard to know if you have it. Ask yourself: ‘Am I working out because I want to or like to, or because I feel like I have to?’
Is your goal to be healthy, or to be loved and accepted because of the way you look?
So far the relationship between mental health and physical health has been strictly input-output. You work out and it releases X chemical. You workout and your brain does Y. However, not all of the relationships between exercise and mental health are this cut-and-dry.
Exercise as a Social Activity
If you’re big into weight loss or muscle building, chances are, you’re not alone. You might already have a network of friends that you go running with, or that you see at the gym.
We asked earlier whether working out is something that you enjoy. If it is – and it should be – one of the things that you enjoy about it might be the people that you see during your routine.
If this isn’t the case for you, make it the case for you. Convince a friend to run or work out with you, or strike up a conversation with someone next to you. (Some people don’t like it when people talk to them when they’re working out, but don’t take it personally.)
Exercise as an Outdoor Activity
If you spend most of your time lifting, you probably spend most of your time in the gym. However, if you’re a runner – even if you’re a lifter, remember to get in your cardio – you probably spend some time outside.
No matter what you’re doing outside, spending time in the sun is great for your mental health.So, if you don’t do any outdoor activities, pick some up.
Build Brains and Brawn!
Unfortunately, with societies many pressures to look a certain way, the connections that we draw between exercise and mental health are often negative ones. There are plenty of ways that being more physically healthy can make you mentally happier too.