Exercise for Mental Health – A Guide to Fitness

Written by: Kaushik Jethva

Last Updated: October 13, 2023 References

fit healthy young woman doing pilates yoga exercise physical activity for body and mind relaxation healthy lifestyle habits concept
fit healthy young woman doing pilates yoga exercise physical activity for body and mind relaxation healthy lifestyle habits concept

There’s a long-held belief that physical health and mental well-being go hand in hand. Recent research suggests a deeper and more intricate relationship between physical activity and cognitive function. [1]This relationship doesn’t just stop at the usual benefits of exercise; it dives deeper into how physical activity can be a significant booster for brain health.

calm young family with little daughter sit on couch practice yoga together
Calm young family with little daughter sit on couch practice yoga together

Numerous studies have shown that an active lifestyle isn’t just good for our physical health; it also plays a pivotal role in maintaining a healthy brain. Engaging in regular exercise taps multiple cognitive abilities and can lead to better cognitive function. But how?

The brain is a remarkably adaptable organ. Physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, has the potential to increase the growth of new brain cells and promote better brain health. These newly formed brain cells contribute to improved cognitive skills. Additionally, exercise increases the flow of blood to the brain, providing it with the necessary oxygen and nutrients for optimal function.

A systematic review of various studies found that older adults who engaged in regular physical activity had a larger brain volume. This is especially significant since an aging brain can naturally lose some of its brain tissue. A larger brain volume is indicative of a brain that’s healthier and more resistant to cognitive decline.

2 Key Benefits of Exercise for Mental Health

Combatting Cognitive Impairment and Dementia Risk

Regular exercise, like aerobic activities and even resistance training with resistance bands, can improve memory and thinking skills. Notably, exercises that involve coordination, such as tai chi, have been shown to significantly boost memory and other cognitive functions.

Boosting Prefrontal Cortex Functionality

The prefrontal cortex, a vital part of the brain responsible for executive function and working memory, benefits from regular exercise. Physical activity promotes healthier brain structure and better brain health, especially in this region.

Reducing Stress and Improving Mental Health

One of the immediate brain-boosting benefits of exercise is its ability to reduce stress. Physical activity releases endorphins, which are natural mood elevators. This positive impact is not just about feeling better at the moment but can also offer long-term benefits for mental health.

3 List of Exercises to Improve Brain Health

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Exercises for Mental Strength
  • Aerobic Exercises: These can help to reduce anxiety and depression.
    • Walking: Accessible for beginners and can be done anywhere.
    • Jogging or Running: Helps in releasing endorphins, which are natural mood lifters.
    • Cycling: This can be done outdoors or on a stationary bike.
    • Swimming: Provides a full-body workout and helps in relaxation.
    • Dancing: A fun way to boost your mood and can also be a social activity.
  • Yoga: Incorporates breathing exercises and meditation which can aid in relaxation and stress reduction.
  • Tai Chi: A form of martial art that promotes balance and works both the mind and body.
  • Pilates: Focuses on core strength and can help with relaxation and body awareness.
  • Strength Training: Weight lifting or using resistance bands can boost mood by increasing endorphin levels.
  • High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Short bursts of intense activity followed by recovery. It’s efficient and can help improve mood.
  • Team Sports: Basketball, soccer, volleyball, etc. can provide the double benefit of physical activity and social interaction.
  • Boxing: This can be a great way to release tension and stress.
  • Martial Arts: Besides physical health benefits, they also offer discipline and a way to focus the mind.
  • Climbing: Both indoor wall climbing and outdoor rock climbing can be both challenging and meditative.
  • Stretching: Incorporate daily stretching to release muscle tension.
  • Group Fitness Classes: From Zumba to spin to boot camps, working out in a group can be motivating and uplifting.
  • Mindfulness Walks: Walking in nature or even a park, being mindful of the surroundings.
  • Functional Fitness Workouts: Focuses on training the body for the activities performed in daily life.
  • Gardening: Believe it or not, gardening is both physically demanding and mentally therapeutic.
  • Recreational Activities: Like hiking, skiing, snowboarding, or kayaking that combine exercise with enjoyment.
  • Balance exercises: Such as using balance balls or doing certain yoga poses, can help with focus and concentration.
  • Breathing Exercises: While not “exercise” in the traditional sense, focused breathing exercises and techniques can help reduce stress and anxiety.

It’s essential to note that the best exercise for mental health is one that you enjoy and will stick with. The consistency of physical activity is more important than the intensity. Before starting a new exercise regimen, especially if you have underlying health conditions or have been inactive, it’s always a good idea to consult with a healthcare provider.

4 How Much Exercise is Necessary for Optimal Brain Health?

For those wondering how much exercise is necessary to reap these cognitive benefits, an active lifestyle doesn’t necessarily mean hitting the gym every day. Moderate-intensity activity, like brisk walking for 150 minutes a week, or strength training with weights or resistance bands twice a week, can be beneficial. This kind of regular physical activity is sufficient to boost brain health, improve cognition, and offer protective factors against cognitive decline.

Furthermore, incorporating mentally stimulating activities, like jigsaw puzzles, into your everyday life can complement the effects of physical exercise. The synapse project highlighted that activities like jigsaw puzzles, which require sustained engagement and tap multiple cognitive abilities, can act as potential protective factors against cognitive decline.

5 Expanding the Perspective: Multisensory Activities for Brain Health

An emerging area of interest is the multisensory perspective on brain health. This approach combines physical activity with learning new skills or engaging in new experiences. For instance, dancing not only offers the physical benefits of exercise but also involves learning new moves, listening to music, and engaging multiple senses, thereby offering a holistic boost to cognitive performance.

6 Wrapping Up

In conclusion, there’s overwhelming evidence to suggest that exercise has positive effects on brain health and cognitive function. Not only can physical activity improve brain function, protect against cognitive impairment, and reduce the risk of diseases like Alzheimer’s, but it can also serve as a potential protective factor against heart disease and other physical ailments.

Incorporating regular exercise, be it aerobic, weight training, or even simple activities like tai chi, into our routine can lead to better brain health, improved memory, and overall better quality of life. As researchers continue to delve deeper into the connection between exercise and brain health, one thing remains clear: exercise is not just for the body; it’s also for the brain. An active lifestyle combined with mentally stimulating activities and learning new skills can offer a holistic approach to maintaining a sharp mind, even as we age.

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Kaushik Jethva
Written by: Kaushik Jethva author

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Updated: October 13, 2023
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