Exercise for mental health – it’s a no-brainer

The physical health benefits of exercise are well researched and understood; and you are no doubt well-versed in the importance of exercise in warding off chronic illness such as diabetes and heart disease. But if you’re someone who uses vigorous exercise to shake off stress, or boost your mood, you will be pleased to know that science is also on your side.

A new studyhas found that people who exercise have improved mental health. The findings show that vigorous exercise boosts critical neurotransmitters, which drives communications between the brain cells that regulate physical and emotional health. This discovery offers exciting new insights into brain metabolism and why exercise could become an important part of treating depression.

Intense exercise increases levels of two common neurotransmitters, glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), that are responsible for chemical messaging within the brain. Study lead author Richard Maddock, professor of Psychiatry and Behavioural Sciences, explains that ‘major depressive disorder is often characterised by depleted glutamate and GABA, which return to normal when mental health is restored.’ He added, ‘our study shows that exercise activates the metabolic pathway that replenishes these neurotransmitters.’

To understand how exercise affects the brain, the researchers studied 38 healthy volunteers who exercised on a stationary bike, reaching approximately 85 per cent of their predicted maximum heart rate. The team used a powerful MRI to measure GABA and glutamate levels in two different parts of the brain immediately before and after three vigorous exercise sessions lasting between eight and 20 minutes. The researchers also made similar measurements for a control group that did not exercise.

It was found that glutamate and GABA levels increased in the participants who exercised, but not among the non-exercisers. Significant increases were found in the visual cortex, which processes visual information, and the anterior cortex, which helps regulate heart rate, some cognitive functions and emotion.

These findings point to the possibility that exercise could be used as an alternative therapy for depression. Maddock explained, ‘we are offering another view on why regular physical activity may be important to prevent or treat depression.’ He added that while ‘not every person who exercises will improve, many will. It’s possible that we can help identify patients who would most benefit from an exercise prescription.’

In addition, the research also offers insight into how the brain uses fuel during exercise. The brain is an energy-intensive organ that consumes a lot of fuel in the form of glucose and other carbohydrates during exercise. What the brain does with that extra fuel has largely been overlooked in brain health research.

According to Maddock, ‘from a metabolic standpoint, vigorous exercise is the most demanding activity the brain encounters, much more intense than calculus or chess, but nobody knows what’s happening with all that energy’. He did note, however, that the new findings prove that ‘one of the things it’s doing is making more neurotransmitters’.

The research also points to the negative impact sedentary lifestyles might have on brain function, along with the role the brain might play in athletic endurance.

Source: The Journal of Neuroscience