Mental health

Exercise and Mental Health

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Key points

  • Exercise has been shown to be a powerful drug against mental disorders.
  • Physical exercise induces its beneficiary effect through several mechanisms that involve growth factor production, mitochondrial biogenesis, and angiogenesis.
  • According to one of the most significant meta-analysis studies on mental health, exercise should be a primary tool for mental health preservation.

In our previous article, “Nutrition & Mental Health,” we looked into the transformative nature nutrition can have on brain metabolism and, by implication, mental health. According to the decades-old theory correlating metabolism and mental health disorders, abnormalities in cellular brain metabolism, specifically mitochondria function, result in abnormal behavior in several physiological mechanisms that control our mood, including neurotransmitter release, hormone release, hormonal resistance, and premature brain cell death. The quality, timing, and amount of food we consume have been shown to either promote or deter these deleterious mechanisms and, as a result, cause our mental health to deteriorate or improve respectively. Food is, consequently, a significant driver of mental health. Exercise has also been shown to be an equally, if not more significant, contributor to mental health. In this article, we explore the mechanisms through which physical exercise can support brain metabolism and thus play a significant role in helping one overcome psychiatric disorders.

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How exercise impacts brain function
Exercise impacts brain metabolism through various mechanisms. Here are the main ones involved:

Blood delivery:
Physical activity increases blood flow and oxygen delivery to the brain, which enhances the brain’s energy metabolism. This increased blood flow also promotes the release of growth factors and neurotrophins, which support the growth and survival of neurons.

Neurotransmitter production:
Exercise also stimulates the production of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which play a role in mood regulation and cognitive function. These neurotransmitters can improve mood, reduce stress, and enhance cognitive abilities.

Growth factors:
Furthermore, exercise has been shown to increase the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and maintenance of neurons. BDNF promotes neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to adapt and change in response to new experiences and learning.

Regular exercise has also been linked to forming new blood vessels in the brain, a process called angiogenesis. This increased vascularization improves blood flow and nutrient delivery to brain cells, supporting their overall function.

Mitochondrial biogenesis:
During exercise, the increased demand for energy triggers a process called mitochondrial biogenesis, which involves the creation of new mitochondria. This increase in mitochondrial density enhances the brain’s ability to produce ATP, the energy currency of cells.

Protein synthesis: Exercise also stimulates the production of proteins involved in mitochondrial function and maintenance. These proteins help optimize the efficiency of mitochondrial respiration and the electron transport chain, which are essential for generating ATP.

The unique role of Zone 2 training

Out of all types of exercise Zone 2 training holds a special place in brain metabolism and thus mental health. Before we dive into the reasons why, let’s first closely examine the different types of exercise. The three main types of training include endurance base training (also known as Zone 2 training which involves continuous exercise at Zone 2), resistance training (lifting weights or using other means to apply muscle resistance), and interval training (alternating between different exercise intensities while doing some sort of cardio like running or cycling). Here’s how each type affects our brain function and emotional state:

  • Improved mitochondrial function: Zone 2 training specifically targets and improves mitochondrial function. Mitochondria are the powerhouses of our cells and are responsible for producing energy. Enhancing mitochondrial function through Zone 2 training gives the brain a more efficient and sustained energy supply, improving cognitive function and overall brain health.

  • Enhanced fat-burning efficiency: Zone 2 training promotes the utilization of fat as a fuel source during exercise. This can be beneficial for brain health as it helps maintain stable blood sugar levels and prevents spikes in insulin. Consistent fat-burning during exercise can also support healthy brain metabolism and reduce the risk of metabolic disorders that can negatively impact brain function.

  • Increased secretion of growth factors: Zone 2 training stimulates the secretion of growth factors in the brain. These growth factors promote the growth of new blood vessels and cells in the brain, leading to improved memory, cognition, and overall brain health.

  • Improved recovery capacity: Zone 2 training helps enhance the body’s recovery capacity, allowing for faster recovery after intense bouts of exercise. This is important for brain health as it reduces the risk of overtraining and supports optimal cognitive function.

A widely studied intervention

The mechanisms through which exercise affects brain metabolism and its benefits for mental health are widely recognized and substantiated by an incredible breadth of scientific research. The scientific validation covers various psychiatric disorders through large-scale epidemiological studies.

  • Depression: Numerous studies have shown that exercise can effectively treat depression. For instance, a meta-analysis of 25 randomized controlled trials found that exercise significantly reduced depressive symptoms in individuals with major depressive disorder.

  • Anxiety disorders: Exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 49 studies found that exercise interventions were associated with a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms.

  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): Exercise benefits individuals with PTSD. Research suggests that exercise can help reduce symptoms of PTSD, such as intrusive thoughts and hyperarousal, and improve overall well-being.

  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Exercise has been shown to affect individuals with ADHD positively. Studies have indicated that exercise can improve attention, executive function, and behavioral symptoms in children and adults with ADHD.

  • Substance use disorders: Exercise can be a helpful adjunct to treatment for substance use disorders. Research suggests that exercise can reduce cravings, improve mood, and support overall recovery in individuals with substance use disorders.

The effectiveness of exercise on psychiatric disorders was also recently validated through a large-scale meta-analysis study encompassing an enormous amount of data points from 97 meta-reviews of 1,039 randomized controlled trials involving 128,119 participants.

In conclusion, the relationship between nutrition, exercise, and mental health is becoming increasingly evident as scientific research sheds light on these lifestyle factors’ transformative impact on brain metabolism and overall well-being. Nutrition significantly influences brain function by affecting cellular metabolism, neurotransmitter release, and hormonal balance. Similarly, exercise exerts powerful effects on brain metabolism through increased blood flow, neurotransmitter production, growth factors, angiogenesis, mitochondrial biogenesis, and protein synthesis.

Among various exercise modalities, Zone 2 training is particularly beneficial for brain health due to its targeted improvement of mitochondrial function, enhanced fat-burning efficiency, increased secretion of growth factors, and improved recovery capacity. The substantial body of scientific research supporting the positive effects of exercise on mental health covers a wide range of psychiatric disorders, including depression, anxiety disorders, PTSD, ADHD, and substance use disorders.

Incorporating regular exercise and a balanced diet into our daily lives can significantly benefit mental health and cognitive function. These lifestyle choices can act as powerful tools to help individuals overcome psychiatric disorders and improve their overall well-being. As we continue to deepen our understanding of the intricate relationship between nutrition, exercise, and mental health, it becomes increasingly clear that promoting a healthy lifestyle is beneficial for our physical health and essential for nurturing a resilient and vibrant mind.



Mental Health