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May is National Fitness Month and Mental Health Month, and the two couldn't fit better together—research shows that physical fitness sharpens the body and the mind.
Glutes, lats, pecs and abs: These are probably the muscle groups you have in mind when you get set to do a workout. Yet every time you hit the treadmill or rack another set of weights, you're also strengthening one of the body's most important organs: the brain.
One of the main things scientists now know is that how we treat our bodies does affect our brains, according to Perry Renshaw, professor of psychiatry at the University of Utah's School of Medicine. "The things we do to improve our physical health and well-being, whether it be diet, changing sleep patterns, reducing drug and alcohol use or exercising, have real benefits cognitively."
And those benefits are many, from that immediate boost in mood that happens mid-workout to relief from chronic pain, and even to preventing and recovering from debilitating conditions such as Alzheimer's disease, depression and stroke. Read on to find out how and why exercise can improve mental health and your sense of well-being today and in the future.
Exercise Makes You Feel Good Right Now
"People who work out regularly feel better than people who don't," says Prof. Renshaw. "And invariably, in the short term, exercise improves mood."
Why: This may be attributed to a number of factors: There's the "runner's high"—that burst of good feelings athletes report during periods of continuous exertion. "Biochemically, your body, when it's working at a certain intensity level, will produce endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, things that help to calm your mind and make you feel happy," says Adam Friedman, a Gold's Gym Fitness Institute trainer.
How to get that feel good effect: Renshaw says, for people who have chronically low mood or even symptoms of mild depression, a regular exercise routine is associated with an improvement in their sense of well-being. "There is almost no doubt: Exercise is one of the more natural antidepressants that we've been able to find," he says. Friedman, too, has seen this effect in his personal-training clients in just the first 30 minutes of a session. "Elevated mood is one of the biggest positive effects of my work," he says. "Often my clients come in stressed from their day, and early into the workout they've let a lot of that stuff go. They're in much better spirits and are ready to take on whatever they have to do. The workout has cleared the mind."
A golden example: Erin faced the stress of a bad economy and kept her spirits high thanks to her membership at Gold's Gym. Watch her story here.
Exercise Today Defends Against Mental Illness Tomorrow
A sculpted body and a positive outlook are huge benefits in the here and now. But committing to an exercise regimen may keep you sharper and better prepare you to fend off mental illness later in life.
Why: Immediately after exercise, nutrients are redirected to the brain at a higher-than-normal rate so it can refuel itself, which is why you feel a post-workout boost in mental acuity. All the good stuff heads north.
How it happens: According to a study conducted earlier this year at the University of Tsukuba's Institute for Health and Sports Sciences in Japan, regular exercise prolongs "brain refueling" specifically in the cortex and hippocampus, where learning and memory formation occur, and suggests that it's involved in the development of a stronger mind. Further, a 2002 study at the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine, determined in animal trials that voluntary exercise stimulates neurogenesis—the brain's ability to build new neurons while increasing resistance to injury and improving learning and mental performance. Both findings give weight to the idea that exercise may help offset Alzheimer's disease, which begins in the brain's memory center, the hippocampus.
A golden example: Meet Harry, a 97-year-old member. He stays sharp and energetic thanks to his regular routines at Gold's Gym. Watch his story here.
Exercise Helps the Brain Heal
Perhaps the most important thing to know about the effect of exercise on the brain: It's never too late to start.
Why: Though it's believed that when it comes to recovery from stroke, the earlier rehabilitation is started the better, a 2008 study by researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that patients who exercised consistently as many as four years following stroke not only improved their walking speed up to 51%, but experienced increased metabolic activity in the brain-stem areas associated with walking. In that case, exercise not only helped strengthen the body, but it also "rewired" the brain to compensate for its damaged areas. "This is great news for stroke survivors because results clearly demonstrate that long-term stroke damage is not immutable, and that with exercise it's never too late for the brain and body to recover," says Daniel Hanley, M.D., professor of neurology at that university.
How to recover the best way: A study by the National Institutes of Health found that patients recovering from stroke who employed any form of intensive rehabilitative exercise, whether using body-weight–supported treadmills or at-home physical strength and balance training, were able to recover their ability to walk—a key factor in happiness and quality of life—more quickly than did patients who used lower-intensity therapies.
A golden example: Six years ago, Dave was in a motorcycle accident that left him in a wheelchair and destroyed his short-term memory. He battled back to health through intense exercise and muscle training and won the title of Gold's Gym Most Inspirational Member in 2011. Read his story here.