Like many Americans, Amy Jamieson was involved in sports and athletics at a very early age. However, unlike the majority, Amy maintained that passion for exercise and fitness through her education and continues to utilize it in her professional life as a personal trainer.
“At first it was the competitive nature of the game, and the team atmosphere, but in the end it was the long term benefits that kept me going,” said Jamieson, a NASM certified trainer and performance enhancement specialist. “I didn’t want to give up that feeling”.
That “feeling” refers to the energized yet relaxed mindset she attains after a bout of exercise. Jamieson says she feels more motivated after completing a workout. For her, exercise is an adrenaline rush and a way to release pent up energy.
There are obvious physiological benefits to exercise, but research has shown that the effects on the mind are just as important, if not more. In fact, exercise is one of the most important things you can do to maintain mental health.
“Moderate exercise improves the hearts ability to pump blood throughout the body and helps maintain healthy blood flow to the brain,” says Daniel Amen, M.D. “It makes the whole body healthier.”
Recent studies have even identified exercise as a cure for the number-one mental health problem in the United States: depression.
About 16 million Americans suffer from depression and 32 million struggle with anxiety and stress reactions, according to Robert Weinburg, author ofFoundations of Sport and Exercise.
People spend thousands of dollars on antidepressants and medical bills, and even more on psychiatrists, but few realize the therapeutic effects that can be found in daily exercise.
Generally speaking, the psychological benefits include the reduction of anxiety, enhancement of mood, and improvements in self-confidence and overall quality of life.
In his book, Weinburg lists both the physiological and psychological effects, which include reductions in muscle tension, increased oxygen delivery to the brain, changes in brain structure and neurotransmitters, enhanced feelings of control and competency, improved self-esteem, and better social interactions.
Much current research is aimed at identifying the neurological reasons that exercise leads to improved mental health.
Exercise actually stimulates neurogenesis, which is the ability of the brain to generate new neurons, according to Dr. Amen. A lack of neurogenesis has been linked with symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD).
To test the theory, one study analyzed neurological activity in two groups of rats. It found a two to threefold increase in neurogenesis in the rats that had access to an exercise wheel, as compared to those who had nothing, and found substantial evidence that exercise can be an effective treatment for MDD (Ernst et al, 2006).
Millions of people have reported feeling elevated and slightly euphoric after running, giving rise to the popular notion of the “runner’s high”. Up to 30% of runners experience it in their daily run, according to Weinburg.
Current research is investigating the science behind it, and more and more support has been found linking the chemicals active during exercise to those active in many narcotics.
Exercise itself is a form of stress, and provokes the body into a “fight or flight” response that activates endorphins and neurotransmitters in the brain, according to Mother Earth News.
These chemicals, which include serotonin and dopamine, play a major role in mood regulation and are similar to those compounds activated by both narcotics and prescription drugs.
As a personal trainer, Jamieson uses these findings into motivate her own clients.
“I like to educate them,” she said, “not just on the aesthetic benefits, but on the health and physiological benefits as well.”
Even as little as ten minutes of exercise per day will enhance your mood, although greater results are seen in long term training programs.
Types of Exercise Benefits
Although all types of exercise have proven beneficial, some are more effective than others in relieving mental stress.
Reductions in anxiety are best achieved through aerobic exercise, like jogging, for a prolonged duration of at least 30 minutes. Increasing your heart rate and blood flow are essential, and a moderate intensity is encouraged.
Anaerobic exercise, like weightlifting, will achieve the same effects at a lower heart rate. Weightlifting requires short bursts of intense muscle output, and though it is easier on the heart and lungs, will enhance your well being nonetheless.
Other important characteristics for stress reduction are exercises involving rhythmic and repetitive movements.
Non-intense activities like yoga or Tai Chi have been found to be effective, as both use rhythmical breathing to achieve a deep relaxation. Likewise, the rhythmic and repetitive movements in walking allow the mind to free itself and focus on more important issues, according to Weinburg.
Group training is also beneficial because it encourages and reinforces a person’s resolve. It also facilitates a sense of competition, which some embrace and use to further drive themselves.
However, the most important factor to consider is not intensity, frequency, or duration, but the level of enjoyment a person gets out of exercise. The best way to maintain that enjoyment, according to Jamieson, is to include a variety of activities in your exercise regime.
“A mixture is important for body and mind,” she said. “It also helps to prevent injuries.”
There is a major sense of accomplishment felt when a person is presented with and overcomes a new challenge, and it can serve as a major tool for reinforcement.
“My clients come to me and say ‘OK I did this, I finished this, now what’s next?’ They look to me for the next best thing.”
One universal truth is that the positive effects of exercise are seen across age groups and genders, and do not depend on a person’s fitness level. Anyone and everyone can benefit from a daily routine, and in time can even learn to enjoy it.
Jamieson works out seven days a week, even multiple times a day, and knows as well as any that exercise can become as addicting as the very medications it seeks to replace.
“If I don’t exercise for a day, I’m annoyed and aggravated. I’m just a wreck.”
Thankfully, there’s a cure for that.
Amen, D.A. (2005). Making a good brain great. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Ernst, Carl. (2006). Antidepressant effects of exercise. Journal of Psyiatry and Neuroscience, 31(2),
Jamieson, Amy. Interview. February 22, 2010.
Keiley, Lynn. (2006, June). The Secret to stress relief. Mother Earth News.
Weinberg, Robert, & Gould, Daniel. (2003). Foundations of sport and exercise psychology. Human Kinetics Publishers.