Exercise Mechanisms for Mental Health

  1. Conditioning Theory: Our sympathetic nervous system is highly stimulated through exercise and is responsible for our flight or flight response. By conditioning our body to associate exercise with safety we can condition ourselves to feeling less anxiety when it comes to experiencing the symptoms associated with exercising: racing heart, breathlessness, increased adrenalin etc.
  2. Small Exposure Theory: There is a biological process called hormesis. This refers to exposing the body to small amounts of a toxic or poisonous substance to increase our resistance. Small exposure theory works by building up our tolerance to stress through moderated doses that are not dangerous. Over time, your tolerance for the dose increases. Our bodies are incredible at adapting to high levels of carbon dioxide and lactic acid when we are exposed to them on a regular basis through exercise. Remember, the best way to stimulate muscle growth is to cause small amounts of damage to the muscle. We can apply the same principle to our neurological adaptations. Avoiding stress is not the key, increasing your tolerance through small exposures, just might be.
  3. Increased Serotonin Theory: serotonin and dopamine are naturally produced during exercise. Many medications for depression work by preventing the re-uptake of Serotonin. So it is logical that increasing your serotonin levels naturally will be of assistance, even if it is only for an acute time frame.
  4. Improved Sleep Theory: Exercise has been repeatedly shown to improve sleep in numerous studies. Limited sleep is now a risk factor for both Al Zheimer’s and Dementia as well as many other mental health disorders. One of the factors contributing to this risk is that the amyloid protein which builds up in our brains throughout the day and is a common cause of plaques in the brain, is eliminated during sleep. This happens for all of us, every day. If you improve your sleep you may be improving your ability to remove this dangerous plaque and decrease your risk of disease.
  5. Small Accomplishment Theory: One of my favourite speeches is from a video I watched of a Navy SEAL speaking at a commencement ceremony for recent graduates. He discussed the arduous training and operations he had been through as a SEAL. He offered some life lessons that his experience had given him. One of these tips was to always make your bed. The reason was more important than the act though. He makes his bed every day so that no matter what, in his mind he starts each day by accomplishing something small. That makes it easier to take on the next challenge, and the next, and the next and the big challenges aren’t so daunting. Small accomplishment theory works the same way. Pick a small challenge. Do it. Then pick the next challenge. Pretty soon the wins start adding up and you can move onto bigger challenges confidently.
  6. Theory of Less Central Fatigue: We often associate exercise with only training our muscles but there is a huge neural and neurological component. When our nerves have reached fatigue this is commonly referred to as central fatigue. Think of it as that experience you may have had where your mind is willing but your body is not able. Your muscles can still contract but the nerve cannot pass on the message. But guess what? We can train your body to become more resistance to central fatigue which can have huge ramifications to how you deal with highly stressful events in your own life outside of exercise sessions.
  7. Buffering the brain theory: By providing an environment when our brain is highly stimulated and regularly exercised we may be able to buffer ourselves against stressful situations. A famous study involved two groups of mice: bully mice and bullied mice. The bullied mice were largely picked on because of their size. The bullied mice were then placed in 2 separate conditions: one group was highly exercised and placed in a stimulating environment with lots of toys and tubes. The second group was kept in standard cages. When the bullied mice were re-introduced in with the bully mice, they were still bullied. The difference was that the group that had been highly exercised and stimulated were more resistant to the stress of the situation. Increasing your resilience is critical to dealing with stressful situations. Exercise can play a big part in buffering your brain from stress. 

Dementia and Al Zheimer’s is now the 3rd biggest killer in Australia. Intentional self-harm is the 14th biggest killer. Like it or not, your mental health is a critical factor to your overall health. We should be prescribing exercise not just for someone’s physical health but also to improve your mental health. It can take 4-6 weeks before your muscles start adapting effectively to exercise but your mental state begins changing within seconds and sometimes it changes even in anticipation of exercise. My final piece of advice is to try choosing your next exercise session based on what you need for your mental health, not just your physical health. Good luck!



Jarrat Wood

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