How Exercise Improved My Mental Health

By Montse Castel

I’ve had weeks where I can’t seem to sit still. I get distracted easily, and the silence is deafening. My mind cannot rest. I hyperfixate on what is bothering me or the mountain of tasks that stare back at me. I get fidgety, overstimulated by my surroundings, and I can’t seem to stop thinking. I constantly doubt myself and my abilities. That is, until I start biking.

When I’m cycling, the wind is all I hear. The feeling of my bike, the resistance, the free pedaling that happens when you go downhill, how my body affects how fast I am going. This is one of the only times I can gain mental clarity when I am feeling overwhelmed or anxious and nothing else seems to work. The doubts, fixations, and overwhelmed feelings dissipate. During these times, all that exists is me and my bicycle.

I used to live a rather sedentary lifestyle. My reasoning: Work was too heavy, school took up all my energy, there was just not enough time in the day. The rush I felt when I started biking, and how amazing it made me feel, forced me to realize I was not prioritizing myself and my physical and mental needs. This encouraged me to schedule time in my day to exercise, along with promoting me to have a healthier work-life balance.

The benefits I’ve gained from cycling are immeasurable. In the span of less than a year, my quality of life has improved more than it ever had before. This encouraged me to look into the  relationship between mental health and exercise.

Research has found that  regular exercise can be an effective way of reducing the likelihood of developing some mental health disorders, and can effectively supplement the treatment for others. This is through an increase in a variety of chemicals that play a critical role in our brain function.

Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is important for survival and growth of neurons, helps transmit signals more effectively, and primarily affects learning and memory. Changes in these signals can be associated with mental illnesses, and prescribed medications can increase expression of BDNF. Although still not fully understood, physical activity has been found to increase production of this protein.

Serotonin is important for emotional processing, and facilitates sleep, appetite, and digestion. Low serotonin levels have been associated with some mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Many medications target serotonin levels, and cause an increase in production. Studies have shown an increase in serotonin level after exercise, as a response to the physical stress your body undergoes.

Dopamine plays a role in motor function, motivation and mood, acting as your body’s reward response. Imbalance in dopamine levels have been associated with mental health disorders such as ADHD, addiction, and depression. Regular exercise helps rebuild your brains’ reward system, increasing dopamine levels and even the amount of dopamine receptors available.

Exercise affects our endocannabinoid system, which consists of receptors that help our bodies maintain homeostasis and work efficiently. Endocannabinoid anandamide is known as the “bliss molecule” and is responsible for the sensation of “runner’s high.” Exercise stimulates the release of these chemicals, which help lower anxiety. The happiness effect of exercise comes from the release of this, along with dopamine.

Lastly, Glutamate and Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid (GABA) help regulate brain function and nerve health. Low GABA levels have been related to depression, mood disorders, and anxiety. Studies have found that glutamate and GABA production increase directly after exercise, and consistent physical activity leads to a higher level of production during resting periods. 

Individuals who partake in regular physical activity are less likely to have certain mental disorders, such as depression and anxiety. Exercise can help reduce symptoms in other disorders, such as schizophrenia and addiction. Like many treatments for mental health conditions, effects can vary on an individual basis and should be monitored throughout. It is not a cure” for mental illnesses, but exercise has been shown, time and again, to be an effective treatment to prevent and reduce mental health disorders.

Throughout my mental health journey, I noticed I struggled the most when I did not have a routine or schedule. Along with this, it was imperative that I maintained a stable support system. I did this through individual therapy, psychiatric care, support groups, and caring for my personal relationships. For me, exercise was the last piece of the puzzle that has helped me throughout my recovery process.