Guest article by Amy Wilson
4th Year Naturopathic intern and certified nutritionist
Most of us recognise that exercise is good for you. We tend to associate exercise with positive heart health, maintaining a healthy body weight and a great way to detox. How about the idea that exercise may in fact, help treat symptoms of anxiety and or depression? When we are better able to manage depression and anxiety, it also effects the ability of our immune system to function optimally. The idea that our emotional state has an impact on us physically, just highlights the importance of a healthy mind for a healthy body. All systems in the human body complement each other. When one is not functioning at its best, we tend to notice other systems begin to struggle.
When we think of the ways exercise makes us feel better, it may seem obvious that it improves our mood. After a hard core sweat session, we may feel accomplished, and that alone can make for a positive change in how we feel. When we exercise, we get our heart pumping harder and faster. Bringing fresh blood to all the organs in our body, including our brains, is an all-around, feel-good win! Exercise may also mean socialising with other individuals. Heading to the gym or meeting a friend for a walk means we are connecting with other humans who share the same intentions. Bonding time, plus physical activity, is a recipe for feeling good.
When we exercise, there are many molecular reactions that take place in the body that contribute to helping us feel better, both mentally and emotionally. These physiological responses to exercise collectively add to a positive mood. Below are only a couple of the well-studied hypotheses as to why exercise makes us feel so good.
Endocannabinoids, which are also known as cannabinoids, are made naturally by the human body. The Endocannabinoid System (ECS), is a complex system, that’s main function is to regulate homeostasis, and keep the body in proper balance.4 Research is studying the theory that the ECS, which plays a role in the function of mood, can be activated through exercise. During physical activity, there is a measurable increase in the body’s concentration of endocannabinoids.5 Although the research is in its infant stages, the hypothesis is that this increase in endocannabinoids may contribute to the physical reactions that occur during exercise. These reactions include pain management, pure happiness, as described by the ‘runners’ high, and an overall sense of wellbeing.5
When you exercise your body responds by producing something called beta-endorphins1. Beta-endorphins are messenger chemicals that are produced in the brain and act all around the body.2 In our peripheral nervous system, they act as painkillers, so we feel better. In our central nervous system, they are responsible for releasing dopamine.2 Dopamine is a feel-good hormone, and plays a large role in positive mood. A decrease in dopamine levels may contribute to mood disorders such as depression.3
Research has shown a relationship between depression and increased inflammation.6 Inflammation is an innate bodily process that we are born with that protects us from disease and injury. Although it is initially protective, if inflammation becomes long lasting or chronic, we not only see an increase in depressive symptoms, but it also starts to affect our ability for our immune system to function optimally.6 When our immune system is not functioning optimally, we are more vulnerable to sickness and disease. Exercise training has been shown to limit inflammation.6 This is just another way exercise contributes to overall well being.
Make exercise interesting and fun by trying different ways to get active. When it comes to being active, just going outdoors for a brisk walk or a hike can do wonders. You can also add small bouts of activity throughout the day that will add up quickly. Try adding more daily activity such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator or walking to the store instead of driving. Another great way to add activity is to take breaks from your daily work routine every hour by doing a quick stretch or a brisk walk around the block. Adding a little activity every day, will add up to big results in your health! The big picture message is to keep moving, we are designed to move!
It’s no doubt that exercise makes us feel good. We definitely do not need a ton of research to show us that we feel great after a good sweat. However, understanding the reactions that physically take place in the body when we exercise, will allow us to better understand the relationship between exercise and improved overall mood, and how this helps with anxiety and depression type symptoms. Anxiety and depression are serious mental health conditions that affect millions of people in North America.7 The more healthcare providers we have discussing these positive mood effects and prescribing exercise as part of a treatment plan, the greater the number of people that will be helped. If you are an individual who struggles with these types of symptoms, take note by journaling how you feel after activity, and in the days that follow. This is a great way to reflect, so that on the days you may be feeling more down, or a little more anxious, you can recall how good a burst of movement can make you feel. This can be a great motivator and reminder to get yourself moving again, even in times you may not be feeling your best.
Take care everyone and keep on moving!
*Disclaimer: Please note that this is NOT a treatment for a clinical disorder such as anxiety or depression. The above topics are discussing research and current literature available. If you are experiencing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, it is always best to consult your primary health care provider for further evaluation and treatment.