We know exercise is good for our mental health – but why?

17 Jun 2024

Exercise, they said.

It’ll help your mental health, they said.

It turns out they got their facts right – as scientific research is continually revealing just how beneficial physical movement can be for both our physical and mental wellbeing.  

The relatively recent discovery of the existence of ‘hope molecules’ (aka myokines), which appear to be produced when muscles contract during exercise, is an exciting development in our understanding of the link between movement and mental health. Yep, the evidence is now there at a cellular level - the dudes in lab coats have discovered that getting sweaty makes us feel more hopeful. 

So, in the name of pushing for better mental health, we asked a Registered Psychologist, Nancy Sokarno, to tell us more about the benefits of exercise for our brains.  

How does exercise impact our brain?

“Our mind and body are interconnected, and we can benefit from movement to enhance our mood and wellbeing. Exercise can increase the release of serotonin in our gut and brain, as well as the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is released in several regions of our brain, such as our prefrontal cortex. The increase in dopamine can act as an internal motivator and can boost the signals in our reward and pleasure centre of the brain. Serotonin, our ‘happiness’ neurotransmitter, is released during exercise and can aid us in overall mood and wellbeing as well as relaxation, sleep and appetite.” 

In what other ways does exercise support people’s mental health?

“When we exercise, we exert arousal energy, which decreases the stress hormone, cortisol, which is caused by our ‘fight or flight’ response. Paying attention to how we feel in our bodies and noticing our breath during exercise can have us feeling more mindful and present in the moment. This then can aid us in coping with stress, anxiety and depression more efficiently. Then in turn, we can be more in tune with regulating our emotions in daily life. 

All the great benefits of moving our bodies can then help us build healthy habits, such as eating nutritiously, improving sleep hygiene, establishing routine, joining sporting teams or gyms and establishing deeper social connections. Collectively, these benefits contribute to the prevention of mental health challenges or can help us return to mental wellbeing.”

How can people use exercise to support their mental health?

“First, understand your capacity for exercise, whether that’s personal commitments, time constraints, location, access to resources, financial position, physical ability, etc. Once you have an understanding of what feels achievable to you, start with a 1% increase in what you’re already doing. Setting yourself goals that are convenient, low investment and easy can bolster your likelihood of maintaining your engagement (instead of feeling like you have started and failed 100 times).  

The ‘why’ behind approaching exercise is an important tool in building purpose behind movement. If we’re coming from a place of punishment, it’s unlikely we will be able to maintain consistency. If we approach it with an appreciation, respect and compassion for our body and mind, it can help us build on positive reinforcement. This will aid us in developing discipline, which is important in better mental wellbeing.” 

What else do you tell your clients around exercise?

“As a psychologist, exercise is something I suggest to all my clients as an additional tool to therapy. It has been shown to improve the way people feel about themselves, both in body and mind; improving their willingness to keep working on themselves and kicking goals. 

Also, having an accountability partner can be a fun way to improve mental health through exercise. Teeing up your workouts with a friend or joining a scheduled gym class or team can not only benefit your exercise routine, but will help you build social connectedness, which is an innate human need.” 

Nancy Sokarno
Registered Psychologist, @psychwithsokz

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