The Psychology of Exercise & The Biology of Endorphin Release
by Jennifer Noll, Restore Movement
Let’s explore the benefits and physiology of exercise and what really happens inside our body. How does exercise positively alter the brain, enhance mood, treat depression and alleviate anxiety?
When we are not exercising, and our body is at rest, we are using the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for our respiratory rate, cardiac output, and various metabolic processes.
However, when we exercise, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system to maintain homeostasis due to higher physical demand placed on the body. Our sympathetic nervous system stimulates our “fight or flight” response, which is activated during stress, danger, and physical activity. Multiple organ systems are involved during physical activity and benefit from a consistent routine over time. The systems involved are musculoskeletal, circulatory, and Endocrine, the latter is what this article will focus on.
It’s never too early or too late in life to begin a physical activity routine.
Let’s take a journey back to heath class:
if you can recall, the endocrine system is our hormone secreting/regulating system.
Why is this important for physical activity? I’m glad you asked.
Cortisol (stress related hormone), epinephrine “fight or flight” (adrenaline hormone), norepinephrine (also “fight or flight”) works with adrenaline to regulate attention, cognitive function, and stress reactions, and last, dopamine (the happy hormone) plays a part in movement, memory, and motivation. The growth hormone also plays a significant role in enhanced bone and tissue growth, insulin sensitivity increases after long-term physical activity, and testosterone levels also increase leading to enhanced growth, libido, and mood.
Studies have shown that people who participate in physical activity have higher concentration scores than non-physically active subjects.
Let’s look at that last statement closer and explore the benefits physical activity has on our brain.
According to the American Psychological Association there is a growing body of research that suggests physical activity is one way to boost brain health, such as improved mental health and mood, and enhanced memory and cognition. Physical stress from exercise can also lower levels of stress hormones, producing a restful state and mental well-being. The less we exercise and the more sedentary we become, the less efficient our bodies are at responding to mental or physical stress.
Exercise and mental health
Experts believe that regular physical activity is as powerful in treating anxiety and mood disorders as antidepressants.
More research is needed to determine the exact “why”, but a hypothesis for this could be due to the release of dopamine and serotonin when we exercise, improving our mood; remember these are our happy hormones. For anyone experiencing anxiety or panic attacks, when we engage in strenuous physical activity, our body mimics the same response to anxiety, meaning the more consistently we exercise the better we train our bodies to cope with overwhelming stressors.
Participating in a physical activity routine regularly also leads to a sense of accompaniment, which trickle down to other aspects of our life such as eating healthier, improving relationships with others, sleeping better, all of which can improve and/or alleviate depression symptoms.
Exercise and the mind’s muscle
Have you ever noticed that after physical activity, your body is tired, but your mind is more alert?
Brain functions, such as memory and cognition, are improved immediately after a workout and in the long-term. Why?
For one, there is an increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain during and after exercise which promotes the growth of new neurons in an area of the brain essential for learning and memory. Studies have also suggested that physical activity benefits white and gray matter in the brain, also leading to enhancements in thinking critically, memory, attention span, and perception.
Exercise sharpens memory.
Have you ever forgotten where you parked your car at the mall, grocery store, or sporting event?
There is evidence that physical activity can help improve the brain’s spatial navigation-our ability to remember everyday events.
As we age, our cognitive function declines, so staying active becomes even more important. Seniors and elderly people who participate in a regular physical activity routine can prevent memory-related diseases like Alzheimer’s.
In people who have been diagnosed with memory-related diseases, exercise is a common treatment intervention, due to studies showing this intervention improves the part of the brain that deals with learning and memory.
Resistance/strength training, particularly, has been found to improve memory and cognitive function.
Exercise and the adolescent brain
Children and adolescents (ages 5-17) should get 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity daily. However, 81% of adolescents (ages 11-17) are not fulfilling that requirement. The CDC reports less than 3 in 10 high school students are participating in physical activity. There are many reasons why this number is low, but as parents and adults, we need to educate children and adolescents on the importance of physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise (in other words “cardio”). It is also our responsibility as adults to positively motivate this age group and ensure their intensity level is high enough to get the benefits of the aerobic exercise.
Adolescence is a time for dramatic brain maturation; This is a great time to begin positive lifestyle habits, such as a proactive and consistent physical activity program to set the course for crafting a toolbox of stress-reduction techniques, making good choices and developing a deep respect and appreciation for the mind-body connection and for life overall.
Exercise has different effects on the brain in childhood verses adolescents and even adulthood. And due to the rapid development of the teenage brain, exercising the brain during this time is fundamental for future cognitive outcomes. Because of this, it is vital to help motivate teens to become more active and build healthy habits with exercise, since active teens become active adults.
Most studies that have been done among adolescents have also found a positive association between physical activity, school performance and overall cognition. Reading and math performance especially, have seen higher scores for those that were physically active relative to non-active teens.
Physically active and sports team participation also yielded higher grade point averages. Aside from grades, other areas where adolescence showed links between being physically active (particularly aerobic exercise) and improved cognitive behaviors were attention, planning, problem-solving, working memory, and inhibitory control.
Regardless of how old or young we are, physical activity at any age has far more benefits than simply being able to fit into a new pair of jeans.
Physiological benefits to exercise are more important than physical appearance, and even more important to our mental health.
Finding the right program might take time and patience, but the ultimate goal is to find physical activities that are enjoyable, so they can more easily be continued for a lifetime.
Joining a workout group might be your thing, or getting a gym membership might work best. Perhaps creating a neighborhood wellness activity group, or designing (and using!) a home gym… whatever fits your lifestyle, budget, goals and long-term plan. If you have children or teens, lead by example and encourage them to join you. If your kids are active and you are not, let them be your example! All that matters is you start moving and continue moving.
Movement truly is medicine.