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Exercise and Mental Health

Exercise is good for you, we know this, we as a society believe in this fully. The question is: how much do we know about the benefits of exercise and how it can improve our quality of life?

We know that it can make us feel good, look good, and some may even know from experience the benefits of reduced stress and more sustained energy and focus. But let’s dive deeper and know why this is. 

Movement Starts With Neurotransmitters

It is important to note that all movement starts with neurotransmitters being sent across various pathways throughout our bodies. Therefore, the underlying purpose of training should be to elicit the proper communication between the brain and body to produce the desired results.

In this article, we will explore the neurotransmitters that are released during exercise.

Oxytocin, also known as the love drug, is produced in the hypothalamus and released by the pituitary gland. Usually associated with social intimacy, the love drug is also responsible for triggering and strengthening contractions in women during labor.

Physicians commonly use synthetic oxytocin to induce labor and discourage hemorrhaging. In males, oxytocin has been shown to increase the production of testosterone as well as work in tandem with it to promote feelings of reward. This love drug is proven to strengthen social bonds, promote sleep, and reduce stress. These are all important factors for the recovery pillar of any training regime so that our goals go undisturbed. 

Along with oxytocin, other chemicals that release a ‘feel good’ sensation during or after exercise, dopamine, endorphins, and serotonin, are often referred to as D.O.S.E.

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter made in the brain that is known for being released when you are anticipating a reward. It plays a major role in motivation, focus, pain processing, control of nausea and vomiting, even kidney and blood vessel function.

Why You Should "JUST DO IT"

Those who work out regularly anticipate the post-workout feeling, so their brains are already firing the release of dopamine. On the contrary, those lacking motivation simply need to just start their exercise or in the words of NIKE, “JUST DO IT” and enjoy the positive sensation afterward.

Once a regular workout regime is established, you will experience Dopamine’s cycle of motivation, reward, and positive reinforcement. 

Serotonin is another neurotransmitter produced in the brain, but about 90% of its supply can be found in our digestive tract and blood platelets. Serotonin is most associated with its feelings of calmness, happiness, and peace but it also plays vital roles in eating, sleep, and digestion.

In sleep, serotonin is more involved REM sleep and wakefulness even though its popular cousin, melatonin, governs the entire sleep/wake cycle.

An important nutrition tip: tryptophan, a type of protein in which serotonin is made can be found in certain food products such as chicken, eggs, cheese, turkey, fish, nuts, and seeds. Either way, we can aid this process by exercise and nutrition and enjoy a peaceful emotional state as well as improved digestive and gut health. 

Norepinephrine is a hormone and neurotransmitter produced in both the peripheral and central nervous systems, responsible for the body’s ‘fight or flight’ responses.

Norepinephrine, also known as noradrenaline, increases heart rate and blood pressure, triggers the release of glucose from energy stores, increases blood flow to skeletal muscle. Low levels of this can be linked directly to lack of energy and concentration, ADHD, even depression.

Furthermore, noradrenaline plays a major role in regulating the body’s emotional and stress responses and is triggered as a response to our physiological changes, i.e. training stimuli.  

Physical Stress Helps To Manage Stress Levels

It may seem counterintuitive that exercise, a form of physical stress, can help us manage our stress levels. However, the chemicals we have explained above help us regulate that stress so that it may not compromise our bodily systems or lead to medical concerns.

So, when we practice proper exercise and nutrition, it goes beyond our ability to look fantastic in our mirror, but moreso affecting our entire quality of life. Strengthening the muscles of the body through exercise also means strengthening the muscles of the brain.

And, those combined will have long-lasting effects far after the time you finish your workout.

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