Exercise and your mental health

04.30.14 |

Exercise is a powerful tool for creating wellness, making it one of the cornerstones of optimal health

Regular exercise promotes heart health, respiratory health, maintains healthy muscle mass, and actively staves off obesity and the many negative health consequences that come with it. In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, there are mental and emotional benefits as well. For example, multiple studies have linked exercise to lower levels of stress and depression because of its ability to release endorphins and to eliminate distractions.
Now, a recently completed 25-year study has found a long-term link between exercise and mental acuity. In short, cardiovascular exercise appears to preserve brain function.

“Things that would be good for the heart are probably going to be good for the brain,” David Jacobs, one of the researchers behind the study, told NPR.

The study established a strong correlation between teenage treadmill performance and memory tests at middle age, suggesting that being physically active had lasting mental health benefits, which is in addition to the many benefits of exercise that we already know about.

Mental sharpness, in terms of optimal health, is a vital part of our wellbeing. If your goal is to live a longer, healthier life, having a healthy mind is essential for enjoying the additional time with friends and family that you earn by investing in your health. With a strong mind, you can enjoy life, recalling old memories and making new ones as you continue to travel and interact with the people you care about. If we have a healthy body but don’t have the healthy mind to go with it, what’s the point?

If you weren’t the most athletic teenager growing up or if you have made it well into middle-age without exercising regularly, don’t worry, and that’s coming from Jacobs and me.

Jacobs told NPR that “if you have not done everything exactly right — and that’s pretty much everybody — you can make changes later in life.”

The best you can do for your health is not to lament what you could have done in the past but to make the most of the body and the time that you have now. You don’t need to sign up for an Iron Man competition or become an Ultra-Marathon runner either to enjoy the benefits of exercise. If exercise is not a regular part of your routine, start small, and consider connecting with a personal trainer, a health coach, or even by taking an email health challenge.

If you are looking for more ways to keep your mind sharp, the Habits of Health can help there. Try doing household chores and tasks with your non-dominant hand. It will feel awkward at first, but it will challenge your brain to build new neural pathways. Picking up a book, having intellectual debates, and playing brain-teasing games (on paper or in videogames) can also help.

Think of your brain as a muscle. It needs to be active, and it needs to be challenged! And like other muscles in your body, your brain is part of a larger machine. Taking care of the big picture by eating right and by exercising will translate into rewards for your mental health, as well!