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  4. Why Exercise is Critical for Maintaining a Healthy Mind

Before we tackle this question, it is important to define mental well-being, which, in a clinical setting, can be determined through the use of biomarkers in conjunction with analyses of behavior and symptoms. Mental disorders such as depression, alongside anxiety and other conditions, have been particularly prevalent during the Covid-19 pandemic, with rates of depression increasing by up to 25% worldwide (World Health Organization). Depression and anxiety, which cause a “persistent feeling of sadness and loss of interest” (Khan), have been attributed to imbalances in certain biomarkers as well as psychosocial factors, those being mainly the monoamine group of neurotransmitters (dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin) and stress hormones such as cortisol and alpha-amylase (Humer et al.). The influence of lifestyle factors, including diet, stress, and physical activity, have been studied rigorously in the scientific literature, with the current consensus pointing towards an abundance of benefits attributed to exercise itself.

Physical activity adopts two main forms: aerobic exercise (cardio) and resistive anaerobic exercise, which puts more stress on the musculature and induces hypertrophy (muscular development/growth). Both forms of activity have been demonstrated to positively affect the aforementioned biomarkers, with steady-state cardio showing particular benefits regarding cardiovascular biomarkers and modulation of monoamine neurotransmitters. The dopamine (DA) and serotonin (5-HT) systems (commonly referred to as endorphins or “feel-good chemicals”) have been shown to upregulate during exercise (Lin and Kuo), resulting in a general improvement in mood and well-being.

It has to be noted that overtraining can, however, cause adverse effects due to this upregulation, as overstimulation of these systems results in long-term downregulation and thus exacerbation of negative symptoms. Regarding exercise’s influence on the norepinephrine system, the literature suggests potential anxiolytic effects (Sciolino and Holmes). The long durations of stress endured by the body while performing exercise cause temporary elevations in cortisol and norepinephrine, which results in adaptation, a protective mechanism that is efficacious at reducing the effects of anxiety (Lin and Kuo). Furthermore, when it comes to team sports or collaborative exercise, studies in young athletes demonstrate that depression and anxiety are greatly diminished—a result likely stemming from social connections with peers and general self-improvement.

A final note when considering the positive mental benefits of sport is the physiological benefits attributed to sustained practice. The energy expenditure and recruitment of musculature in exercise are highly beneficial for developing a strong cardiovascular and muscular system, potentially resulting in body recompositions if supplemented with proper diet and sleep. The necessity for athletic performance in sports may be a motivating factor for adopting positive lifestyle changes, which aggregate the improvements in biomarkers and thus mental well-being.

Lastly, an improvement in body composition is likely to increase confidence in an individual, a critical factor when considering general satisfaction and happiness. Overall, it can be concluded that exercise is an effective method of improving mental health, potentially diminishing or mitigating symptoms associated with depression and anxiety while developing a solid physical foundation and relationships with peers.

Works Cited

Humer, Elke, et al. “Metabolomic Biomarkers in Anxiety Disorders.” International Journal of Molecular Sciences, vol. 21, no. 13, 1 Jan. 2020, p. 4784, www.mdpi.com/1422-0067/21/13/4784/htm, 10.3390/ijms21134784. Accessed 24 Apr. 2021.

Khan, Arif. “TREATING DEPRESSION.” Psychiatric Annals, vol. 29, no. 3, 1 Mar. 1999, pp. 123–124, 10.3928/0048-5713-19990301-03. Accessed 31 May 2019.

Lin, Tzu-Wei, and Yu-Min Kuo. “Exercise Benefits Brain Function: The Monoamine Connection.” Brain Sciences, vol. 3, no. 4, 11 Jan. 2013, pp. 39–53, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4061837/, 10.3390/brainsci3010039.

Sciolino, Natale R., and Philip V. Holmes. “Exercise Offers Anxiolytic Potential: A Role for Stress and Brain Noradrenergic-Galaninergic Mechanisms.” Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, vol. 36, no. 9, Oct. 2012, pp. 1965–1984, 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2012.06.005.

World Health Organization. “COVID-19 Pandemic Triggers 25% Increase in Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Worldwide.” Www.who.int, 2 Mar. 2022, www.who.int/news/item/02-03-2022-covid-19-pandemic-triggers-25-increase-in-prevalence-of-anxiety-and-depression-worldwide.


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