3 ways exercise improves mental health

For the past many years, I've wanted so much to be a runner. I love the idea of slipping on my running shoes, heading out the door, and clearing my mind with the meditative rhythm of my feet hitting the ground. 

Running though was almost always a hard thing for me. Though I'd start slowly following a program, old injuries would flare up, I'd struggle with consistent aches and pains, and eventually I'd let the burgeoning habit die.

But I knew how important a regular workout was for me. I knew I felt mentally clearer, could better deal with stress, and slept more soundly and easily when I was running.

And that runner's high after a run? Even through the pain, I got it. And for a couple of hours after a run, I'd bask in the glow of clearer lungs, a clearer mind, and the feeling of "Hey, look what I accomplished!"

What is it about running that made me feel so good, and could I get the same benefits from something else? Science, it turns out, has a lot to say about it and why sweat-worthy cardio is important for brain health.

1) A recent article in New York Magazine explains that nearly 30 years of research in neuroscience have established a link between aerobic exercise and a clearer mind. We now know that new brain cells are produced throughout our lifespan, but we've only recently discovered that the only activity known to trigger their creation is vigorous aerobic exercise (30-40 minutes of exercise that makes you sweat). So, as you run or do other aerobic activity, your brain is quite literally refreshing itself, which is one reason you might enjoy significant clear-headedness after a run.

2) And research shows that when these new brains cells (or neurons) show up, it's in the part of the brain associated with learning and working memory (the hippocampus), which is another reason you may feel clearer and better able to engage with the world after a run. It also helps explain why many people seem to find solutions to problems during or after a run.

3) Another important brain benefit of exercise is increased activity and blood flow in the frontal lobe of the brain (the area right behind your forehead). This area is known to be involved with emotion regulation, emotional well-being, planning ahead, focus and concentration, goal-setting, and time management. It's been shown that regular aerobic exercisers are better able to recover from emotional stress than are those who don't engage in vigorous exercise. This helps explain why people find exercise to be such a good way to manage stress and be better able to cope with life's ups and downs. Studies have even shown that regular exercise can be helpful in treating depression.

Science continues to produce evidence for what we've talked about colloquially for years: that people who regularly exercise (hard and long enough to produce a sweat) seem to reap the cognitive rewards of a clearer mind, better mood, and increased ability to deal with stress. AND it would seem that running, while one of the more popular ways, isn't the only road to these mental health benefits. Any aerobic exercise works. 

So, I kept trying -- the elliptical machine, a recumbent bike, a cross-trainer -- any method at the gym that would be a fit for my body and not produce the same aches and pains. And then (yes, I was inspired by Kevin Spacey's workout of choice on House of Cards), I discovered the rowing machine. It was my dream workout: rhythmic, meditative, and pain-free (aside from the muscle fatigue as I grew into the workout). I'm not a runner, but I'm a rower. And I feel just as great afterwards as I did with running, plus I can keep it up without injury. 

I found my exercise "thing," and I'd encourage you to keep trying until you find the workout that you can keep up with, are excited about, and from which you can reap the physical and mental rewards.