Physical exercise improves physical fitness and health. This is nothing new. In previous posts, we also reported that physical exercise improves brain functioning. Endurance training as well as weight lifting is likely to be beneficial. But the positive effects of physical exercise seem to go even further: researchers found it to improve mental health in several studies, and they are currently investigating the underlying mechanisms for this relationship.
There are quite a few studies in which researchers found physical exercise to be beneficial for mental health. For example, Gro Bertheussen, Pal Romundstad, Tormod Landmark, Stein Kaasa, Ola Dale and Jorunn Helbostad from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim compared in their study the health-related quality of life of 4,500 adults between 19 and 91 years of age. They found that those who were more physically active also had a better mental health, on average, and that this was true for men and for women. The relationship was stronger amongst the older study participants, but present for all age groups.
Researchers Michael L. Lehmann and Miles Herkenham from the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Maryland, were interested in the mechanism behind this. They conducted a study with mice in which they found physical exercise to promote stress resiliency. It seems that the physical exercise changed the neuronal functioning in certain areas of the brain related to emotional processing, amongst them a region of the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. The study is described in more detail on the NY Times Well Blog.
Thus, physical exercise really seems to be beneficial for our stress resilience and therefore for our well-being. This is also taken into account by many psychotherapists: They make their patients exercise, sometimes supported by medication, but sometimes even instead of medication. And the results are encouraging, people really get better.
How much should we exercise? The researchers recommend moderate levels of exercise because too much of it could contribute to anxiety. Anything is better than nothing, therefore it might already be enough to go for a couple of walks during the week or ride one’s bike to work. Just make sure you do something!