There is a lot of talk these days about our mental health. Covid-19 has taken a drain on our happiness, our social interactions, routines and activities. We need to be creative and find ways to take care of ourselves – brain and body. As the snow starts to fall and we enter the winter months, there is an even higher risk of falling into poor behavior patterns that may affect our physical and mental health. Here are a few reasons why exercise, and movement in general, can help alleviate the blues:
- Happy chemicals – Studies have shown that exercise can alleviate symptoms among the clinically depressed. Getting your body moving releases endorphins, which boost feelings of happiness and euphoria. Whether it’s walking, snowshoeing, or housecleaning, just 30 minutes a few times a week can boost your overall mood. Research shows that exercise can boost brain function, reduce symptoms of depression and improve mental health illnesses, such as dementia.
- Improve self confidence – We typically attribute exercise to losing weight and fitting our clothes better. However, regardless of weight, age or gender, exercise can elevate one’s perception of his or her appearance, thereby improving one’s self worth and self confidence.
- Reduce stress – Covid has been a very stressful time. A disruption of finances, kids spending more time at home and a change in work routine can take their toll. Working up a sweat can help manage physical and mental stress. Exercise has been shown to increase the release of norepinephrine, a chemical that moderates the brain’s response to stress.
- Prevent cognitive decline – In 1979, researchers from Cardiff University followed 2,235 individuals as they entered their senior years. While a healthy diet and not smoking were important factors, they found exercise to be the biggest factor when it came to preventing dementia. They found that people who followed four out of five factors of regular exercise, low body weight, healthy diet, low alcohol intake and not smoking, had a 60% decrease in both dementia and cognitive decline rates.
- Boost brain cells – various studies have shown that cardiovascular exercise can facilitate neurogenesis, aka new brain cells, and improve overall brain performance. It is thought that exercise promotes a brain derived protein known, in scholarly circles, as BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor). In the brain, BDNF is active in the hippocampus, cortex and basal forebrain – areas vital to memory, higher thinking and learning.
- Improved memory – back to that hippocampus…the increased production of cells in the areas of the brain responsible for memory, learning, and mood have helped researchers link children’s brain development with level of physical fitness – bring on the snow tag, snowman making and snowball fights!
- Control addiction – dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a major role in reward motivated behavior. In response to any type of pleasure, be it exercise, drugs, alcohol or food, there is an increase in the levels of dopamine in the brain. Some people develop addictions and may rely on certain substances that amplify the effects of dopamine, namely drugs and alcohol. It has been shown that short bouts of exercise can effectively distract drug or alcohol addicts, making them de-prioritize cravings for the short term. Interesting nonetheless!
- Sleep better – on the theme of certain vices…alcohol has been shown to disrupt many body processes, including circadian rhythms. Exercise can help reboot our body’s internal clock and facilitate you hitting the hay at the right time. A recent study on women diagnosed with insomnia, randomly assigned them to a 16 week program of 30 minute exercise sessions 3-4x/week. By the end of the study, they reported sleeping 45min-1hour longer on most nights, waking up less often and feeling more vigor and less sleepiness overall.
- Improve immunity – there is another buzz word these days…immunity. Regular exercise can boost your immune system and help fight off infections. Exercise allows immune cells to perform effectively, increase blood flow, reduce inflammation and strengthen antibodies.
- Enjoy the great outdoors – for an extra boost of mood enhancing fresh air, take that workout outside. All that Vitamin D acquired from soaking up the sun (yes, even in the winter!) has been shown to lessen the likelihood of experiencing depressive symptoms.
There is some food for thought for this winter season and battling the blues of this pandemic. Let’s embrace kindness to ourselves and others, be thankful for our beautiful surroundings and aim for patience in these trying times. Bragg Creek Physiotherapy is here to help you restore, maintain and make the most of your mobility, function and well-being.
Jennifer Gordon (BScPT, GunnIMS, AFCI)