Why we need to see exercise as medicine for the brain

Typically, when people list why they exercise they reference weight loss, fitness or strength. Rarely does depression or anxiety treatment make the list. This is no surprise given that for many years talking therapies have been the go to for treatment of these conditions. 

Exercise enthusiasts regularly preach the mood benefits of exercise and we are now blessed with a wealth of research on this topic to back up the feeling. A dive into the research suggests two things; exercise to be an anti-depressant with both short-term and long-term benefits; and a sedentary lifestyle to be a depressant. Many studies report high fitness levels to be a protective factor against development of future depression and anxiety and this makes sense when we consider our ancestral hunter and gatherer roots.

A look in to the daily lives of a hunter and gatherer makes it quite evident that we were made to move. Hunter and gatherer tribes on average walk/run 6.5km – 15km/day, quite a stretch for the average westerner working in an office bound environment, ever so reliant on technological and mechanical conveniences. A recent study by the Lancet found the physical activity levels of Australian teens to be some of the worst ranked in the world coming in at 140 out of 146 countries according to WHO physical activity guidelines. Whereas a health report that came out in 2015 found 30% of adults are considered sedentary. 

So why is exercise effective in improving depressive and anxiety symptoms? The answer can be summarised into two categories; physiological and psychological. When you start to exercise your body goes into flight or fight mode, a situation which causes an influx of neurotransmitters into the circulatory system which best enhances our ability for survival. Many of these neurotransmitters, better known as endorphins, stimulate and enhance the brain in profound ways.

If you are a novice to exercise, or active hobbies in general, it is normal to be nervous and unsure about where to start. Arguably, this is where the most powerful mental benefits can be achieved. Willingly choosing to expose yourself to something physically challenging and achieving personal goals builds self-efficacy and with it, a boost in confidence to overcome difficult challenges. This is where we see the most addictive and powerful mood benefits. We need to think of exercise as medicine for the brain.

So, if we should be thinking of exercise as medication, how much, how long and how often should we be doing it? Current guidelines for exercise are geared towards improving our physical health and as such, we lack clear guidelines on what is necessary for achieving good mental health. Studies have shown as little as 10-15 min bouts of exercise can reduce stress, depressive symptoms and improve self-esteem in adults.

The research clearly shows a dose-response relationship, suggesting the more you exercise, the greater the benefit will be.  The best prescription I have synthesised from the research is as follows; something is better than nothing however, more is generally better. 

To be able to support our patients in achieving these goals, this year Pine Rivers Private Hospital has opened of a new exercise room available to inpatients during their stay. The exercise room, which includes a treadmill, bike and cross trainer, was installed due to overwhelming patient feedback.  Our aim is to better assist patients in achieving a comprehensive plan for their mental health goals, including exercise.   

We also encourage our Inpatients to take part in our Walking Towards Wellness group which takes patients on a 30min walk around the area, using this time to take in surroundings in a mindful way – being aware of what is happening and how they are feeling during this time.

Exercise duration and frequency aside, it is important to find something that you enjoy. Whether this is walking, running, swimming or boxing – take the time to find something that makes you want to go back! 

To find out more about the programs that Pine Rivers Private Hospital has to offer or to discuss our inpatient programs please contact 3881 7222 to speak to our Intake Team.

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