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Looking beyond the physical benefits of exercise

We are all more than aware that regular exercise provides an abundance of physical health benefits. People often look to physical activity to manage their weight, improve bone strength, strengthen muscles and joints and lower blood pressure. Exercise can also reduce our risk of illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer by up to 50%. A recent article published newly produced statistics showing 26,000 early deaths are prevented in the UK every year due to exercise, amounting to almost four million globally. However, frequent exercise also contributes to positive enhancements in other areas of our life and health, areas that many individuals may not attribute as being affected by our fitness routine.

Learning and memory performance

Considerable research has been conducted within the area of the effects of exercise on our learning and memory performance, with most concluding there to be an enhancing effect. These cognitive benefits have even been shown to last for several weeks after a regular, consistent exercise routine has ended, suggesting the effects on our brain continue to evolve for a time period afterwards. When examined in rodents, the most common improvements are within hippocampal-dependent behaviour. This includes elements such as our spatial learning (understandings of our surroundings and navigation) and contextual memory (a basic process in our long-term memory that allows us to remember different aspects of a previously occurring event). Improvements in recognition memory have also been found, which is our ability to recognise previously encountered events, objects or people through matching it to stored memory representations.

These enhancements are thought to result through exercise increasing our levels of 'brain-derived neurotrophic factor' (BDNF) protein found in the brain, often nick-named 'brain fertiliser'. BDNF plays a major role in the mechanisms that govern memory formation and storage, demonstrating why an exercise induced increase in BDNF enhances these brain functions. Improvements in forms of learning and memory that do not rely on the hippocampal area of the brain have also been found post-exercise when BDNF levels were increased. Therefore, this shows the significant impact of an increased amount of BDNF as a result of exercise for many of our cognitive functions. It is also worth noting that the amount of exercise we endure does not influence these positive effects, meaning any increase in physical activity should benefit your learning and memory performance. Following on from that, research has found these benefits whilst examining different sports, meaning you can find the one you enjoy.

Sleep quality and disorders

As humans, sleep is essential for optimum health. Many key processes occur during this period such as memory consolidation and restoration of nervous, immune and muscular systems. Individuals suffering with chronic sleep disturbances have been found to be at higher risk of experiencing cardiovascular disease, psychiatric disorders and early mortality. Since some sleep disorders appear to be increasingly common, such as insomnia and sleep-disordered breathing each being found in 10% of the adult population, it's important to try and find ways to combat these issues.

For a long while, exercise has been closely linked to promoting better sleep. Convincing evidence is also greatly accumulating on the effectiveness of employing exercise as a non-pharmacologic treatment for sleeping disorders. One study found that after four months of aerobic exercise training for adults with insomnia, their sleep quality was significantly improved and they found a reduction in daytime sleepiness and depressive symptoms. Furthermore, when testing patients suffering differing health problems, simple, moderate intensity exercise has often been found successful in relieving fatigue and/or sleep disorders. Enhanced sleep quality can also have knock-on effects since it has been found to be closely linked with improvements in mental health, demonstrating the wider impact of exercise induced enhancements.

However, a bi-directional relationship between exercise and sleep has also commonly been proposed. Adults experiencing poor sleep quality or insomnia are often less active in the daytime and have lower cardio-respiratory fitness than adults without. Most likely this is because of the fatigue and daytime sleepiness caused by poor quality sleep. Additionally, adults who are deemed 'morning people' and have an earlier, habitual wake up time are associated with greater levels of physical activity. Nightly variations in sleep quality have also been seen to predict levels of physical activity the following day, which could suggest a potentially stronger relationship in this direction. Either way, exercise and sleep are evidently closely linked, thus a healthy balance of both will most likely provide positive effects on each other and overall on your health and well being.

Mental health

As previously touched upon as a knock-on effect, and addressed in my past blog post, mental health has been found to be directly improved by exercise. Regular physical activity can provide up to a 30% lower risk of depression. It causes changes to the levels of certain chemicals in your brain such as serotonin, endorphins and stress hormones, all substances that can contribute to feeling more positive and less stressed. The BDNF protein discussed earlier has been found to be significantly lacking in individuals showing increased anxiety-like behaviours, evidencing how the exercise induced increase in BDNF can help ease the effects of anxiety. Additionally, exercise has been found to provide anti-depressant like effects. A study found that when tested on rodents, similar responses were found of those completing increased exercise and those used for anti-depressant drug testing. This suggests an overlap between the mechanisms promoted by exercise and anti-depressant medication.

Another study focused on an employee population of a large commercial site. It was found that after a 24-week exercise-based intervention, employees levels of depression and stress significantly improved. To measure this they used the Vitality and Mental Health and the Depression and Stress scales, which were completed initially as a baseline and again at the end of the study. Those who scored worst on their baseline displayed the greatest improvements.

Furthermore, numerous experimental studies have shown varying intensities of exercise to consistently reduce anxiety, with some studies showing higher effectiveness for acute exercise than meditation or a cognitive-behavioural method. Socially grouped exercise has been suggested as being especially beneficial in reducing anxiety-like behaviour. This is because the social interaction buffers any negative actions of the high glucocoticoid levels produced through exercise, as these high levels can on occasion be negative for those suffering from anxiety.

Generally, physical activity tends to improve an individual's self-confidence, self-concept, cognition and other psychological variables which, in turn, positively influence one's mental health. Changes in fitness have been found to significantly correlate to large increases in self-confidence, indicating a likely vast improvement in overall mental health.

So, whilst physical health benefits are extremely important and using exercise to assist with weight loss is a great method, don't forget about all of the other amazing things exercise can do for our mind and lifestyle. Sometimes people easily look past exercise, finding it "unexciting" or "tedious", however giving it a go will allow you to notice the positive effects it will likely have in many aspects of your life. Admittedly, it may not be a quick fix and might require a time period of consistency in order to reap the benefits. But, after just reading the magnitude of these benefits, it's worth a try, right? Personally, I tend to at least feel an elevation in my mood instantly; nothing beats the positive endorphin rush experienced after a workout! Obviously, we always have to be conscious and mindful of over-training and the negative consequences that could have for our bodies, but easy-to-moderate intensity sessions three times a week is an ideal place to start.

Have you noticed any quality of life or mind improvements through implementing regular exercise? I would love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!



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