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Body and mind: exercise and mental health

Mental health and physical health have a lot in common. Both benefit from basic and regular maintenance. Nutrition and exercise are the basic maintenance for both a healthy mind and a healthy body.

While diet and exercise are often thought of as tools of physical health, research has shown that these factors have an impact on how we feel and how well we function mentally and emotionally, as well as physically. Many of the symptoms associated with deterioration in mental health – including fatigue, lack of energy, poor concentration, anxiety and poor body image – benefit from exercise and a healthy diet.

All the physical aspects of exercise that benefit the body (such as increased circulation, improved metabolism, and the body’s ability to use oxygen more efficiently) also benefit the brain and all of the neurological functions it performs.

Exercise is an effective tool for managing stress, as well as symptoms that stem from stress including worry, irritability and sleep problems. Studies have shown that aerobic exercise can help alleviate anxiety, and there is a wealth of research pointing to the close link between exercise and mood. In fact, one of the most important lifestyle modifications that people at risk for depression can make is to exercise regularly.

Studies have shown that exercise releases serotonin, the same neurotransmitter in the brain that is targeted by many antidepressants. It also releases endorphins, the neurotransmitters that help alleviate pain and reduce stress. These are the same chemicals responsible for the euphoria known as “runner’s high.”

The effects of exercise on the immune system boost both mental and physical fitness. Regular exercise helps boost white blood cells and can help fight off infection. It can also help reduce levels of cytokines, a type of immune system chemical that may aggravate depression.

In addition to its physical benefits, exercise has psychological benefits as well. It can build confidence, help people set and meet goals, and may help prevent isolation by getting people into the community.

This information is provided by Women’s College Hospital and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: Feb. 22, 2014

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