3 Ways Exercise Benefits Your Mental Health
When you work your body, you boost your mind in three essential ways.
A new report from researchers at the University of Basel in Switzerland and the University of Tsukuba in Japan has found that coordinated and challenging sports with fellow players, like tennis or soccer, have a greater effect on cognitive abilities than solo fitness activities. The report analyzed 80 studies covering various types and aspects of exercise—including strength training, endurance training, and exercise intensity—and how they impact cognitive performance. While all types of exercise were found to increase cognitive abilities, the greatest benefit came from sports that combined complex sets of movements and interaction with other players. Increased benefit came in the form of the growth of new brain cells and neural connections in the frontal lobe.
University of Basel researcher Sebastian Ludyga, Ph.D., who co-wrote the report, says that partner sports are particularly valuable to cognition because they force our brains to react quickly under pressure to “the somewhat unpredictable movements of our teammates or opponents.”
The report refuted the idea that the more exercise you do, the more mentally fit you’ll become. According to the findings, the type of exercise is more important for cognitive improvement than its frequency or duration.
Aerobic exercise in particular plays a big role in your memory, says Wendy Suzuki, Ph.D., professor of neural science and psychology at New York University’s Center for Neural Science. “When you exercise, your body pumps out a wide range of neurochemicals, including growth factors that stimulate the birth of brand-new brain cells in the hippocampus. That’s the area of the brain that’s critical for storing long-term memories,” she says. “I use that as my personal motivation to keep working out every day.”
A recent study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found a 47 percent improvement in memory scores among the group who did aerobic exercise for a year versus those who only did stretching exercises. Aerobics was shown to increase blood flow to the hippocampus, which may help protect against memory loss for those at risk of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.
Just a single session of exercise can improve your mood, Suzuki says. Each time we exercise, it encourages our brain to release chemicals like serotonin (which regulates mood, sleep, and hunger) and our natural mood lifters, endorphins. A 2019 study published in Preventive Medicine found that people who did strength training or aerobic activities like walking, running, and cycling reported fewer depressive symptoms. Research also shows that exercise can improve the quality and length of sleep, which is important for mental health and mood. Cumulative exercise can even permanently change the structure and function of our brains for the better, Suzuki says.
“The good news is that we can do an easy form of self-experimentation to decide which type of movement puts us in the best mood,” she says. “For some, it will be dancing to a favorite song in the living room; for others, it will be a five-mile run in nature.”