Exercise is medicine. Literally. Just like a pill, it reliably changes brain function by altering the activity of key brain chemicals and hormones.
~ Stephen Ilardi, Neuroscientist and Author,
The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise positively impacts depression and anxiety both physically and psychologically. These benefits are directly related to physical activity as well as indirectly related to improved overall health.
Many people exercise to improve their physical health, which by itself increases self-esteem and provides a sense of well being. But the benefits don't stop there. Those who exercise regularly enjoy increased energy levels, improved sleep, better memory and a stronger immune system.
Neuroscientist and author Stephen Ilardi explains that humans are not designed for our modern, sedentary lifestyles. “Human beings were not designed for this poorly nourished, sedentary, indoor, sleep-deprived, socially isolated, frenzied pace of life. So depression continues its relentless march."
Dr. Ilardi says our human genome is that of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Some hunter-gather populations still exist today, and they have no documented cases of depression. Instead, they eat a natural, whole foods diet, get plenty of sunshine and social interaction, move constantly, and average ten hours of sleep a night.
Ways that Exercise Boosts Mood and Well-Being
1. Exercise increases levels of “feel good” substances like endorphins, opiate peptides, and endocannabinoids, the body's own version of the calming substance in marijuana. Research shows these brain chemicals are what contribute to the “runners high,” reducing anxiety and boosting mood.
2. Applying your focus to physical activity breaks the cycle of automatic negative thoughts (aka “ants”).
3. Improving your physical body—whether that's balance, flexibility, muscle tone, stamina, strength, cardio—boosts your self-esteem and confidence.
4. Activities give us the opportunity to connect with others, improving social connections. Researchers at Oxford University found that rowers who trained together released significantly higher levels of endorphins than rowers who trained by themselves.
5. Research also shows that combining exercise with your favorite music increases levels of endorphins.
6. Regular exercise helps to strengthen healthy circadian rhythms, which improves the quality of our sleep, which improves our mental health and well-being.
7. Studies show exercise is as effective as many anti-depressant medicines in cases of mild to moderate depression, and without side effects. Exercise promotes neural cell growth, reduces brain inflammation, and creates new brain activity patterns that reinforce feelings of well-being.