Physical activity and mental health
It is known that exercising regularly has multiple beneficial effects for our bodies.Specifically, physical activity improveshealth and is fundamental to preventing disease. The physicalbenefits of exerciseare well known: maintaining a healthy weight, improving flexibility, fatigue resistance, and muscle tone, among many other benefits.
Mentally, there are also numerous modifications that are allies to our psychological well-being. Neuroscience has shown that exercise has a direct impact on brain function, preventing different possible alterations. In this article, we will discuss in greater detail how physical exercise improves our functional capacity and, ultimately, our brain.
Exercise and neurotransmitters
In the brain, there are millions of neurons that are connected to each other through an enormously complex circuit. The connection between neurons is made through a type of hormones called neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters are biomolecules necessary for the transport of information.
Having the neurotransmitters in balance allows for the proper functioning of the nervous system(NS).
Among the several benefits thatneurotransmitters contribute to the body, the following are noteworthy: the ability to concentrate, memory, learning, quality of sleep and rest, regulation of stress responses, and reasoning.
Next, we will talk about the most important neurotransmitters that are produced and released during exercise or physical activity:
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter associated with pleasure and linked withrelaxation. Cognitively speaking, dopaminecontrols functions such as learning and memory, and plays a fundamental role in decision-making. These executive functions are vital for proper brain function.(ENLACE AL ARTÍCULO FUNCIONES EJECUTIVAS)
Serotonin, often abbreviated as 5-HT, is also known as the happiness hormone. Serotonin regulates various functions such as appetite, sleep, and mood. It also causes feelings of well-being and euphoria.
When produced, IGF-1 impacts on the so-called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” (BDNF), which is essential for higher reasoning functions.
Inhibition of BDNF impairs abilities such as learning and memory. To further understand this, BDNF can be thought of as brain fertilizer.
Exercise increases BDNF levels, which is directly related to the formation of new neurons in the hippocampus, a brain area that is associated withlearning and memory processes.
Recent studiessuggest that a combination of physical activityand antidepressants significantly increases BDNF levels by 250%.
Acetylcholine is the best ally for preventing neurological impairment. It is responsible for muscle activation and its primary function is to improve cognitive skills.
When it comes to exercise, endorphins are the neurotransmitters par excellence. In addition, endorphins play a role in regulating the body’s response to anxiety.Endorphinscan be thought of as the athlete’s “drug”. When endorphins are releasedduring physical activity, they give rise to feelings of well-being and pleasure, making us want to go back toexercise the following dayto experiencethose feelings once again.The so-called runner’s highfits this description.
Numerous studies have shown that physical activity can treat mild to moderate depression as effectively as antidepressants. Caution should be exercised nevertheless, for these findings, in no case, suggestor recommend the substitution or elimination of prescribed antidepressants.
People who had been suffering from depressionfor more than 7 years were the participants in a very interesting study. They took part in a 12-week exercise programthat combined cycling and running. 30% of the participants managed to recover completely from depression. Data was also obtained for the type of exercisethat was most appropriate to combat this disorder.
The results showed that intense physical exercise is recommended for men. This is also the most appropriate type of exercise for women with depression not due to genetic influences.However, if there is a hereditary component or family history of depression in these women, a mild form of exercise is recommended.
In short, it has been amply demonstrated that exercise helpsdecrease depressive states.
To paraphrase the Harvard researchers responsible for this study:
Exercising is not exactly like taking an antidepressant, but not exercising is like taking a depressant.