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We’ve all had those days where we’ve been in a bit of a funk, been disappointed by an outcome or let down by a friend. One of the quickest and easiest ways to get back on track is to put on your trainers and head out for a walk. Exercise, especially in a green space has been shown to help alleviate stress, reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression and elevate mood.

Which is why making a regular walk a habit and something to look forward to can help elevate your stress resistance. Better still choosing to participate in a variety of different physical activities elevates mood, and improves memory and cognition.

How does exercise help brain health and mental well-being?

Exercise increases cerebral blood flow – providing extra oxygen and nutrients for the brain. Whilst the brain accounts for around 2% of our total body weight it consumes 20% of all the energy we put into our body. Two-thirds of the brain’s energy is used by our neurons to send electrical messages and the remaining third is used for brainy housekeeping and maintenance to keep our neurons in top shape.

In addition, exercise stimulates the release of growth factors essential to neuronal health, increases the release of our feel-good hormones serotonin, dopamine and endorphins and promotes the process of neurogenesis, the production and survival of new neurons.

But wait there’s more, exercise helps to reduce stress by reducing levels of adrenaline and cortisol, the body’s stress hormones. As stress levels drop, muscular tension starts to reduce and we start to feel a whole lot better.

Exercise can be used as a useful way to clear the mind of worrying thoughts and help us to focus on more pleasant things. Listening to music while exercising adds to the beneficial effect with the bonus that we will continue to exercise for longer and depending on the rhythm and the beat, at a faster pace.

Exercise is neuroprotective

Regular exercise over the longer term has the additional benefit of reducing brain shrinkage that normally occurs with age. This means retaining your gray matter, in particular the number of neurons in the hippocampus, the area of the brain associated with learning and memory and white matter, which also helps protect against cognitive decline.

What if you’re allergic to exercise?

If the thought of wearing Lycra brings you out in a rash, or you just don’t consider yourself sporty, that’s OK because the amount of exertion required to benefit is termed moderate. This means working hard enough to get your heart and breathing rate up, however, if walking with a friend, you’ll still be able to enjoy holding a conversation.

It all counts

If exercise really isn’t your thing, call it something else and find a physical activity you do enjoy. This could be dancing, cycling to the shops, throwing a ball for the dog in the park, even renovating the spare bedroom. Rather than worrying about how many minutes you are exercising, staying active for as much time as possible is what counts. Over the week aim to spend 150 minutes being active and if life gets in the way of your intentions, remember spending some time exercising is always better than doing none.

Start low and stay safe

This is part of your life plan for better brain and mental health, so if you haven’t been doing any regular exercise for a while, get a check-up from your doctor first if you’re over forty, otherwise aim to start with 10 to 15 minutes. You can always build from there, but this will minimise the risk of injury.

Exercise is good for sleep

Regular exercise has the bonus effect of improving your sleep pattern. Getting a good night’s sleep is well recognised as being very important for mood, emotional regulation and reducing cognitive fatigue.

The best time to exercise

The best time for exercise is the time you do it. The benefit to the brain follows the exercise so if possible keep your workout to the earlier part of the day or during your lunch break. If the only time is later in the day, that’s fine too though try to avoid vigorous activity too close to bedtime as this can impair sleep though a gentle form of exercise such as yoga is fine.

Finding it hard to face exercise?

If you’re feeling stressed, anxious or depressed it’s not unusual to not want to exercise. However if you can try to get out and move even if it’s just for five minutes, that’s a great start and once you start to feel better, it’s far easier to find the motivation to continue.

Be prepared

Just like the Boy Scouts, preparation is the key to minimise the risk of procrastination, excuses or stories we tell to justify why we weren’t successful in getting to our intended activity.

  • Pop your trainers and your sports kit ready by the front door, so you’re all set to go.
  • Choose to exercise with a friend. It’s much easier to get out from under the doona when you know your exercise buddy will be waiting for you, plus it’s more fun exercising with a friend.
  • Get a dog. They are always ready to head out for that next walk.
  • Mix it up. Variety keeps life interesting so why not try a couple of aerobic sessions at the gym, playing tennis or on your bike interspersed with some stretching and resistance (weight) training.

Maintaining our mental health in a world that is increasingly busy, complex and full of different challenges has never been more important. The best gift you can ever give yourself is the promise to include the lifestyle habit of exercise.

October is Mental Health Month. This blog post was written as a guest post for House Call Doctor the trusted after-hours GP Home Doctor Service based in Brisbane that provides after-hours GP services.

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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