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Exercise and Mental Illness


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What are the mechanisms by which exercise has this positive effect on mental well being? Three main mechanisms have been put forward by researchers:

Biochemical Mechanisms

Probably the most well known example of a biochemical contribution comes in the form of a feeling of euphoria following intense prolonged exercise. Known as "runners high" increases in plasma b - endorphin are believed to underlie this mental state, though it is still unclear if it promotes mental well being long-term. More promising research points to norepinephrine, and serotonin (5-HT) as mechanisms for improved mood, both are elevated following acute exercise. Given that many anti-depressant medications also work by increasing the levels of these neurotransmitters in the brain, it seems reasonable to assume that this may be the means by which exercise operates.

Psychosocial Mechanisms

A number of hypotheses are offered within this area, and is probably the most easily understood. The idea that regular exercise and physical fitness can improve perceptions of our self-worth and self-esteem is not new, and is probably a drive to participate in exercise for most of us whether depressed or not. In todays materialistic society "Body Image" appears to be one of the biggest obsessions. It affects us to the point that our every move is guided by it. Eating patterns, dressing habits, exercise habits, and even the way we walk or hold ourselves is in some way related to our drive to have a good body image. Its not unexpected to find that body image and self-esteem are more closely associated with each other than any other dimension of self (5). Many of the effects of exercise such as loosing fat and improving muscle shape and definition, offer a means to improvement of body image and therefore self-esteem. It should be noted that positive self-esteem is related to good mental well being. Changing our body appearance through exercise may also contribute to positive self-esteem through the sense of control we gain when we bring about change in our bodies. Another factor that may contribute is social interaction that accompanies activities that involve exercise. However, this would also suggest that playing chess could be just as effective if it was a simple act of social interaction.

From the website: ThinkMuscle.com

Exercise for Mental Health

By Kelly O'Brien

Added October 30th, 2002.

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