If you’ve been following our blog for any length of time – or better yet, attended CFS in the past – you’ll be no stranger to our opinion on exercise.

We love it!

Exercise comes with so many great benefits that we would be hard pressed to fit them all into a single article. 

Regular exercise can, for instance, speed up your metabolism. 

It improves your efficiency at burning calories.

It prevents the body from cannibalizing precious lean muscle and supercharges the processes that melt away stubborn fat

Exercise even helps to improve circulation and clean toxins out of your system, which can improve your skin and reduce skin related problems like acne.

These are all great facts – and we at CFS hope that if you aren’t already participating in regular exercise, you’ll consider some of these factors as encouragements to start. That said, today I want to step away from the direct physical benefits of exercise and focus purely on the mental and emotional effects.

Revealing new depression link study

One of the most impressive mental benefits of exercise has been and continues to be its’ effects on depression. 

As we’ve cited plenty of times in the past, exercise is known to release endorphins that stimulate the pleasure centers of our brains and make us feel happy.

This natural high is perhaps one of the most surprising aspects for beginners. That moment when you realize that you’re actually enjoying yourself as you push your body to its’ limits is liberating and invigorating.

Studies around this phenomenon have revealed that regular exercise can act as a natural antidepressant. The effect has been shown to be powerful enough to mimic or replace common prescription antidepressant drugs. 

While these effects have been known for some time, we have only now begun to understand WHY this happens. Thanks to a new imaging study from UC Davis Health System however, we’re now starting to understand the science behind the studies.

According to study author Richard Maddock, “Major depressive disorder is often characterized by depleted glutamate and [gamma-aminobutyric acid or GABA] which return to normal when mental health is restored…”

Glutamate and GABA are common neurotransmitters, responsible for chemical messaging within the brain. Through professor Maddock’s study, intense physical exercise has been shown to increase levels of both chemicals.

“Our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters,” says Maddock.

Based on this information, we could begin to see mental health experts “prescribing” regular, vigorous exercise in addition to or even in place of some drugs for the treatment of both minor and severe depression.

Physical activity works the brain harder than mental activity

When you think of tasks that challenge your brain, 30 minutes on an elliptical may not be the first thing that comes to mind.

Our brains use energy. A lot of it. The brain actually burns more energy than any other organ. Up to 20% of your daily calories are consumed feeding your brain. 

That fact alone could surprise you – but you may be even more surprised to discover that the brain uses substantially more energy during physical exercise than intellectual pursuits like calculus or chess. 

Just like any other muscle in the body, exercising your brain will help it perform better. And while intelligence exercises are great for improving the way your brain manipulates knowledge, physical exercise directly improves the power with which it can attack those kinds of problems. 

Memory and mental acuity

Vigorous physical exercise does more than simply amp up low neurotransmitter levels and essentially light your brain’s calorie-burning afterburner. It has also been shown to boost memory retention and learning potential.

Indirectly, exercise helps your brain function better by reducing stress, improving mood and sleep, and increasing circulation.

More directly, exercise naturally reduces insulin resistance, reduces inflammation and stimulates growth factors – chemicals that promote growth, health and generation of brain cells. 

Additionally, a Harvard Medical School study recently found that the hippocampus (part of the brain involved with verbal memory and learning) in people who regularly performed aerobic exercise was larger than those who did not. Studies have also shown increased volume in other areas of the brain that control thinking, including the prefrontal and medial temporal cortex, amongst regular exercisers.

Regardless of the specific physical results, the performance results have been known to us for a long time, and can be easily reproduced. Next time you’re stumped dealing with a work problem or class assignment, take a break, go outside and take a quick jog around the block. The clearness of mind will be refreshing.

Mental health and your outlook on the future

While the immediate effects of physical exercise on your mind are great, the long-term effects can be even better. Studies have shown that people who stay physically active are significantly less likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease

Why? It could be due to physical brain health offering less foothold for the disease. Or it could have more to do with recently discovered connections between depression and various forms of dementia including Alzheimer’s. 

No matter how you slice it... Staying active is one of the best ways you can take care of your mind, and keep it working well for many years to come.