How Exercise Works
What makes exercise improve mental health? The short answer is that no one knows for sure. The good news is that many smart people have spent many hours working to figure it out and they have some really good ideas. They include:
Have you heard active people speak about exercise is very positive terms? They describe their latest race or bench press record with such enthusiasm. The positive feeling that arises after a period of exercise relates to an increase in endorphin levels in the body.
Phrases like “endorphin calm” and “runners high” describe the feeling during and after periods of exercise. Flooding of endorphin into the system yields feelings of euphoria in people.
Current psychotropic drugs target serotonin receptors in the brain to flood synapses with serotonin. More serotonin leads to improved mood and better sleep.
Research has shown that exercise in both human and animal subjects affects the amount of tryptophan in the body. Tryptophan is the good stuff from turkey that makes you feel peaceful and sleepy following a big holiday meal.
Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin. Because tryptophan works like serotonin, exercise produces the same effect that the current medications for depression do.
Much like serotonin, it appears the body releases norepinephrine into the system during exercise. With increased norepinephrine, depressive symptoms will decrease. What makes norepinephrine different is the range of positives that it brings.
When this transmitter is released, your heart beats faster allowing more oxygen to reach your brain and muscles making you think clearer and have improve strength and coordination. If concentration has been an issue, norepinephrine will be a welcomed addition.
Soaking in a jacuzzi, getting in a hot bath, sitting in a sauna and vacationing to a warm part of the world all make you feel better. This hypothesis states that exercise helps you feel less depressed or anxious simply by warming your body.
For thousands of years, people have been seeking out natural hot springs claiming they have healing properties. The ancient Greeks used bath houses to become refreshed and recuperated. Currently, some forms of cancer treatment employ whole-body hyperthermia. People undergoing this treatment report having decreased pain and an increased sense of well-being
Although no one can pinpoint exactly which hypothesis is correct, consider that combinations of several, or all, of the hypotheses are accurate. If this were true, your brain and body would gain so much from you doing so little. In terms of risk and benefit, exercise is overwhelmingly beneficial.