It’s not news to anyone: exercise is good for our health. What is more interesting is the recent research showing how physical activity may activate certain pathways within our immune systems, our endocrine systems, and even change our brain function. One fascinating area where all of this intersects is the link between exercise and mental health.
Mental health issues are a growing problem in the United States and worldwide. Depression alone affects around 350 million people and is one of the leading causes of disability across the planet. Despite the best efforts of providers and scientists, strategies for treating and preventing depression have been lacking. Many people continue to struggle with the condition even after receiving therapy. This is why it is so important that we continue to look for additional strategies in depression prevention and management. Of these, exercise is among the most promising.
In the last several decades, researchers have examined the potential benefits of physical activity on symptoms of depression. This scientific study reveals that exercise may be an effective treatment for unipolar depression. More recently an advanced research technique called Mendelian randomization has provided further support for this connection.
Why would moving our bodies have a positive effect on mood? Several hypotheses have been posed. For example, exercise is known to increase growth factors for our neurons including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a molecule that may play a role in decreasing symptoms of depression. Physical activity also seems to have beneficial effects on immune function, lowering levels of chronic inflammation. This is important as scientists are increasingly recognizing the link between chronic inflammation and depression.
With all this in mind, it’s pretty clear that exercise does a lot more than help us look better in a bathing suit. The good news is that we can all benefit from adding physical activity into our day—and it doesn’t have to be expensive! If you’re just starting out, taking a daily walk around the neighborhood is a great way to begin incorporating movement into your routine. For those seeking more guidance, the internet is replete with free exercise videos (many don’t require any equipment). There are also a wide variety of exercise apps (some free) which can help provide engaging and varied workout plans