One in every four people worldwide will suffer from a mental or neurological disorder at some point in their lives, according to a recent report from the World Health Organization.  The figures are even more startling when we zoom in on men.  1 in every 2 Australian men will be affected, and in the U.S., men account for 75% of reported suicides.  In short, there’s a mental health crisis impacting men at alarming rates.  But as scary as it seems, there’s one activity you’re already engaging in that can preserve your mental health or help you deal with existing conditions – exercise.

A March report from Psychology Today showed that exercise reduced the risk of depression, helped maintain good mental health as we age, and proved effective in treating several conditions, such as anxiety and dementia.  For so long, we’ve viewed exercise as a mandatory part of physical health. However, we stand to gain so much more.

How exercise helps

Exercise has a direct impact on your brain.  Whenever you hit the gym or the trail, the volume of select brain regions increases because there’s better blood supply.  This increased blood supply delivers additional oxygen and nutrients to your neurons, which help control brain and nervous system functions.

More specifically, new neurons are formed in your hippocampus during exercise.  The hippocampus is the part of your brain that’s directly involved in forming memories, learning, and regulating emotions. Studies have shown that conditions like depression stem from reduced neuron activity in the hippocampus. Thus, by boosting neuron activity, exercise fights one of depression’s causes at its core.

Other mental health benefits

Aside from the direct impact on your brain, exercise has several other proven mental health benefits:

  • Stress relief: Exercise increases production of norepinephrine, a chemical that helps moderate your brain’s response to stress.  So, the next time you feel overwhelmed by a busy day at work, a gym session could help you sort it all out.
  • Happiness chemicals: Regular exercise releases endorphins, the feel-good chemicals that stimulate feelings of euphoria and happiness.  What better way to combat negative feelings than with happy chemicals?
  • Self-confidence: Regardless of your fitness level, exercise boosts your perception of your body, leading to an increase in your self-worth and confidence.
  • Less anxiety: Just 20 minutes of moderate physical activity can reduce your sensitivity to anxiety.
  • Control or reduce addiction: When you experience pleasure, your brain releases the chemical dopamine, which signals a feeling of euphoria.  The bad news is that drugs and alcohol can fuel the release of dopamine.  But on the bright side, exercise can stimulate dopamine release, too.  Research has shown that exercise can distract those with serious addictions from their vices.  They can achieve a dopamine release from a jog or a lifting session instead of something more harmful.  In short, it’s a powerful tool in fighting a serious problem.

How much exercise do you need?

There’s no set rule here – every body is different, and you may need to experiment to find the frequency that’s right for you.  On average, 3-5 45-minute sessions per week seems to be the sweet spot.  Maybe you can do more; maybe you need less.  As long as you’re making the effort, you’ll likely reap the benefits.

While exercise can be extremely beneficial in treating mental health, it shouldn’t take the place of seeking treatment from a professional.  But in terms of self-preservation, it’s a great place to start.