We live in a society where stress, anxiety, and depression have increased and caused mental health concerns for people of all ages, especially teens. There are many approaches to treating these conditions, such as medications, breathing techniques, therapy, and so on. However, an often-overlooked approach to combat these mental health issues is aerobic exercise.
This article will examine how the physiology of aerobic exercise can help improve brain function and, in turn, improve mental health.
Most of us are aware that exercise is beneficial for our bodies, but we tend to forget that our brain is just as much a part of our body as our muscles. As we continue to evolve into a technologically advanced society, we use our bodies less for everyday tasks. However, as human beings, we are programmed to move! Our ancestors had to hunt and gather and move just to survive. The Neanderthals did not own treadmills; they just did what they had to for survival.
Research has shown that the brain has plasticity, meaning that it can change; unfortunately, this means it can change for the worse if we do not take proper care of it. The brain cannot tell the difference between types of stress, whether it’s a saber tooth tiger chasing you or an important math test. When our brain experiences stress, our brain chemistry changes and shifts us into the fight or flight response. We’ll discuss what exactly the fight or flight response is in the next paragraph.
Our teenagers are overstimulated with all kinds of modern stress, from acceptance of peers on social media to getting accepted into a good college to knowing the latest TicTok dance. When the brain is constantly triggered by these stressors and stuck in this fight or flight loop, it becomes more susceptible to depression and anxiety. A simple way to combat these mental health issues is aerobic exercise.
WHAT IS FIGHT OR FLIGHT?
To understand how exercise can improve mental health, first, we must understand the purpose of our nervous system. For the sake of this article, we will keep things basic. The purpose of our body’s nervous system is to coordinate and respond to sensory information. The nervous system can be separated into two categories: the somatic and autonomic nervous systems. The somatic nervous system controls voluntary movements such as choosing to open a door or taking a drink of water. The autonomic nervous system controls movement that we don’t even think of, such as breathing and digesting food. The autonomic nervous system can be broken down even further into two more categories: the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems. The parasympathetic nervous system refers to a state of calm and rest; it is also known as the rest and digest system because we are in a state of decreased arousal. However, once we begin to detect stress, such as a notification on Facebook from a cyberbully, we begin to shift into the sympathetic nervous system, which was brought up earlier as the fight or flight response. Our pupils dilate, our heart rate increases, and our body prepares for a physical response. Even though we don’t need to respond physically at the moment, the brain believes that we do. The fight or flight response originally was supposed to give us a jolt of awareness to sprint away from the saber tooth tiger.
AEROBIC EXERCISE AND BRAIN FUNCTION
Aerobic exercise has been found to increase the production of endorphins in the brain. Endorphins are the brain’s neurotransmitters that help us feel good and give us that euphoric feeling after a good workout. When endorphin production is increased, there are a lot of positive results that follow, such as improved self-esteem, which can help lower symptoms of mild depression and anxiety. In turn, this gives us a more positive outlook on life, thus improving the state of our mental health. In the year 2000, a study from Duke University came out showing that exercise was better at treating depression than Zoloft.
Aerobic exercise can also help us improve our sleep patterns. When the body is stuck in the stressed-out fight or flight loop, sleep is harder to come by. Good sleep can combat depression and anxiety by shifting us into a rest and digest state. Getting a good night of sleep can help us recover and be more productive and prepared for the day and decrease depression and anxiety.
Academic performance can also be improved with the help of aerobic exercise. During aerobic exercise, oxygen is pumped into the brain and creates an environment where brain cells can grow. This creates more neurons in the brain and helps prime the brain for learning new information.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT AEROBIC EXERCISE
Aerobic exercise can decrease depression and anxiety, improve our sleep patterns, and help us process and learn new information. Aim to incorporate at least 30 minutes of aerobic exercise into your daily life by trying the following activities:
- Going for runs/walks
- Playing a team sport that involves moderate to vigorous physical activity (soccer, basketball, football, etc.)
There are plenty of healthy activities that can be done to achieve aerobic exercise. When starting any form of physical activity, please be sure to consult your doctor or physician to ensure that you are capable of doing the activities. This article is not intended to treat or cure any serious mental health issues.