The mind and body are irrevocably connected. It’s best not to think of the body as “one thing” and the mind as “another thing.” As human beings, we manifest a comprehensive whole. Some go a step further and name mind, body and spirit as the triumvirate that makes us who we are.
That’s why exercising the body does more than benefit our muscle tissues, bones, brains, blood and organs. When all of these are brought into a healthy balance, the mind follows.
Thus, think of regular exercise as a mind-body-spirit maintenance/improvement program. This is not just theory. There is solid scientific evidence proving that exercise can improve mental health. A study conducted by researchers Elizabeth Anderson and Geetha Shivakumar published in the Frontiers of Psychiatry Journal called the beneficial effect on mental health produced by physical activity “indisputable.”
Anderson and Shivakumar cite exercise as the driver of increased endorphin production. Endorphins are natural opioid-like neuropeptides produced by the pituitary gland in the brain. The primary purpose of endorphins is to control pain. When the body suffers a traumatic injury, the pituitary gland kicks into action and floods the body with endorphins.
Just as prescription opioid drugs can produce a feeling of euphoria, endorphins can lift our mood or sometimes even trigger a sensation of exhilaration, relaxation and joy. The so-called “runner’s high” is an example.
However, the effect of increased endorphin production usually is not a sudden “high.” It is a long-term and general feeling of well-being. Regular exercise encourages a greater endorphin presence in your brain on an ongoing basis. That’s why exercise fights depression and can help us maintain a positive mood every day.
Exercise also counters feelings of stress and anxiety. These feelings are produced by adrenaline and cortisol, hormones the human body developed as an adaptation mechanism to help us in times of danger, as in the “fight or flight” syndrome.
However, the many stresses of modern life produce increased levels of stress hormones in people every day. In the past, it was a rare or only occasional event to help us cope with getting chased by a bear or a lion, for example.
The biochemical process is complicated, but the bottom line is that regular exercise gets rid of too much adrenaline and cortisol that builds up in our bodies, reducing stress and making us feel lighter and happier — the hallmarks of good mental health.