At their core, depression and anxiety are caused by a loss of connection or connectivity, in our lives and the internal workings of our brains. Exercise is a great way to increase connectivity in mind but also help us connect in other areas of life too. Here are five ways in which exercise and sport are a great way to treat anxiety and depression.
Exercise boosts Neurotrophic factors.
When we carry out aerobic exercise, we release what are known as neurotrophic factors in the brain. One of these factors is known as BDNF (Brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which has been described as a ‘miracle grow for the brain’. The BDNF protects our neurons against cortisol (the stress hormone) in areas that control mood.
This includes the hippocampus where it encourages neurons to grow, making it vital for neuroplasticity (brains ability to change) and neurogenesis (creation of new brain cells) both of which are vital for individuals looking to treat depression. Furthermore, BDNF also turns on the genes to create more neurotransmitters and neurotrophins, as well as putting the brakes on self-destructive cellular activity. It produces proteins that as building materials for our axons and dendrites.
Increased volume of good neurotransmitters
Exercise regulates all of the neurotransmitters which antidepressants target. It immediately increases the amount of a neurotransmitter known as Norepinephrine, which ‘wakes up’ the brain and improves your self-esteem, a major component of depression.
Exercise also elevates the level of dopamine, improving mood and feeling of wellness. It also jump-starts the attention system, making it easier for us to remain present. this is vital as with most mood-related disorders; the cause often derives from being ‘stuck’ in the past or constantly worrying about the future. So by focusing on the here and now we can improve our mental wellbeing.
Serotonin is equally affected by exercise. It’s vital when it comes to controlling mood, impulse control and self-esteem and crucially it helps to stave off stress by counteracting cortisol. Cortisol levels, if left unchecked can cause ‘synaptic pruning’ where our brains synapses are slowly destroyed, which can make it harder for depressed individuals to focus on other areas of life other than their ‘stressors’. When this happens, then they are more likely to trigger their fight or flight or response more frequently.
Improves motor skills and promotes sociability
Human beings have evolved to be social creatures, and when an individual becomes depressed, they tend to isolate themselves from others. By taking part in a team sport, it encourages you to forge new friendships and connections in the real world and the brain. When carried out alongside aerobic exercise, you give the newly created neurons a reason for existence, as new connections are created during social interactions, meaning you’re giving your brain a good old workout. When we make new friends, we gain a stronger self-esteem and inner confidence that depression can take away from us.
By playing sports that involve complex movements, we simultaneously create neurons and fill them too. With aerobic exercise, we increase the volume of neurotransmitters, create new blood vessels that transport new growth factors around the brain and spawn new cells. With complex movements, we put all of these new cells to good use by creating complex connections. The more complex the movement, the more complex the connection is going to be.
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