Group of happy runners

8 May 2024

Mental Clarity Through Movement

It's well known that regular physical activity can help prevent and manage non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. But when we move, our bodies also release a myriad of ‘feel-good’ chemicals which play a role in reducing stress, anxiety and the risk of depression.

These biochemical substances play diverse roles in enhancing our mental state and overall sense of wellbeing.

  1. Endorphins are often referred to as the body's natural painkillers and are known for their ability to induce feelings of euphoria and provide pain relief, which is why many people experience a 'runner's high' after intense physical activity.
  2. Serotonin plays a multifaceted role in our bodies, influencing mood, appetite, and sleep. Physical activity can increase the brain's serotonin levels, which is associated with improved mood and a sense of calm, whereas low levels of serotonin are linked with depression and many antidepressants work by increasing the availability of serotonin at the synapses.
  3. Dopamine is often referred to as the 'reward chemical' because it is responsible for the pleasure and reward feelings we experience. Elevated dopamine levels due to consistent physical activity can contribute to a more positive outlook on life and a better ability to focus and plan.
  4. Norepinephrine plays a role in the body's stress response and can influence mood and arousal. Exercise can increase norepinephrine concentrations, which can help improve alertness, energy, and concentration, as well as potentially alleviate feelings of depression.

The release of these chemicals during exercise creates an interrelated network of positive feedback loops in the brain, so the more regularly someone engages in physical activity the more pronounced the benefits for mental health tend to be. This is due to a combination of immediate effects (like the acute release of neurotransmitters) and longer-term adaptations in the brain and body that make it more resilient to stress over time.

Engaging in regular physical activity can also lead to improved sleep patterns, which is a cornerstone of mental health. A well-rested mind is better equipped to handle stress, regulate emotions and maintain cognitive function. The physiological benefits of exercise, such as reduced blood pressure and enhanced cardiovascular health, also serve to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

But the mental benefits of movement extend beyond neurotransmitters and stress hormones.

  • Rhythmic, repetitive activities such as running, can become a form of moving meditation, allowing for a momentary reprieve from the incessant chatter of a busy mind. This meditative aspect of movement can foster a sense of present-moment awareness.
  • The achievement of movement goals, whether that's beating a personal best in a run or mastering a new yoga pose, can translate into a greater sense of control and confidence that permeates all areas of life. 
  • If partaking in group exercise, the camaraderie and accountability found in group settings can enhance motivation and also provide essential social support, which is a crucial factor in maintaining mental health.