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Is there a link between exercise and mental health?

Most medical experts will unequivocally endorse the benefits derived from regular exercise. 

Sometimes running can be a difference-maker when you feel depressed over the latest hand life dealt you. 

Or the powerlessness you feel for anxiety permeating your life can lead to stress. 

This is when you can hit life’s ‘pause’ button and change into your run gear. 

After a few rhythmic strides, while listening to your own breathing and foot patterns, you may now zone out all intrusive thoughts, to focus on whatever you want…or nothing. 

Running is escape, freedom, strength, and power, and it can even save your life.

According to a recent Canadian Psychological Association report, there is no single reason why physical activity has mental health benefits.  

Instead, the CPA report lists physiological, psychological, social, and neurological benefits of working out regularly. Take a look:

Physiological – such as the body’s production of endorphins and endocannabinoids, which are chemicals that help you to relax, feel more pleasure and feel less pain, and reduces the amount of cortisol (i.e. stress hormone) your body produces.  

Psychological – regular physical activity helps to increase feelings of self-esteem and self-efficacy, or how much you believe in yourself to accomplish important goals. 

Short bursts of exercise can also make you happier in the moment by interrupting negative trains of thought.

Social – people who exercise regularly tend to have bigger social networks and stronger relationships with friends and family. 

The regular face-to-face interaction that comes from group exercise (e.g., fitness classes, team sports) boosts your mood and can help to prevent depression.

Neurological – physical activity helps your brain to use and produce more dopamine and serotonin – chemicals produced in your brain that make you feel happy. 

People who exercise regularly have more blood flow to the brain, better brain functioning, and even more brain matter in certain areas (e.g. hippocampus, which is associated with memory).

In an email interview, Noel Paine, an Ottawa runner and author of Talking Running: Stories, profiles and conversations with the running community, gave his take on what running has meant to him. 

He says: “For me – running is not a cure-all but a step towards a clearer mind and a fitter, healthier body. I run because I love to run but also because I feel better after and am better able to think and solve problems and have the energy to survive and flourish in a busy running dad life. I use running as stress relief, as a way to feel good physically, to do something I enjoy that culminates for me in well-being overall. I combine this with healthy eating, meditation and taking care of myself in other ways.”

Essentially, you have everything to gain and nothing to lose except excess pounds by starting a workout program, whether or not it includes running.

Over 20-plus years of running, I just feel a sense of calm and empowerment during some – but not all – of my long runs.

Where else can you totally lose yourself without noticing your improving physical condition… in progress?

All of the Fitness Friday articles are supplied by Christine Blanchette and you can follow her on Twitter or her Youtube channel.

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