Exercise and Mental Health

Hopefully, that new gym membership you bought on Jan. 2 isn’t gathering dust along with your running shoes.

But, if you’re like the majority of people who gave up on their resolutions on Jan. 10, you may need some new motivation to get back in the groove. The first—and most important—concern should be your mental health.

Your Brain on Physical Exercise

If case you didn’t already know, every time you work out your body, you’re also strengthening your brain. There are stacks of studies to show that aerobic exercise increases the size of critical parts of the brain and improves cognition, and that’s part of the discussion at this year's annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston.

Art Kramer, a University of Illinois psychology professor and expert on the impact of physical fitness on cognition, discussed how exercise affects brain function Saturday at the AAAS symposium.

“Populations throughout the industrialized world are becoming increasing sedentary as a result of the changing nature of work and leisure activities,” he said. “Increased physical activity also has direct, and relatively rapid effects on cognition and brain health. Such results have now been reported, over the course of several decades, in animal studies of physical activity.” 

Exercises that integrate both mental and physical elements, such as yoga, can maximize the positive effects on your body and brain.

Getting a Mental Workout

While physical exercise is important for the brain, some are saying government and society as a whole should prioritize mental well-being as we do physical health. 

Barbara Sahakian, a professor of neuroscience at the University of Cambridge, spoke about this at the AAAS conference. She said that because one in four adults has a mental disorder, mental illnesses are the leading cause of disability in the U.S., the U.K., and Canada, and conditions such as depression should be given more attention and resources. 

“Just as joggers check their pulse rate, we should encourage individuals to regularly keep an eye on the state of their mental health,” she said in a press release prior to the conference. “Often, people wait too long to seek help, making their condition more difficult to treat. We need to educate the public about what to look for and make them aware of the importance of early detection and intervention.”

Like Kramer, Sahakian emphasized the importance of physical health and its relationship with mental health. She said consumer-based technologies, such as iPad apps, can encourage people to get regular mental exercise and may help them get the support they need quickly.

“Technology for early detection of problems in brain health and for monitoring mental health problems is essential. This will promote early detection and early effective treatment, as well as public health planning,” she said. “Hopefully, this conceptual shift in the way society views brain health will ultimately lead to the prevention of common mental health problems.”

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