Maintaining an active lifestyle is great for physical health and keeping the body strong. But are the benefits even greater than that? Experts are looking inside the brain to find a link between healthy weight loss and positive psychological effects. With eye-opening findings, the body-mind connection is being examined on a deeper level and provides yet another reason that physical activity is beneficial.
Ever notice how exercise can turn a bad day around? That’s because exercise has been found to improve mood in many individuals. In fact, some psychologists even turn to exercise as a tool to treat patients. Jennifer Carter, PhD works at the Center for Balanced Living in Ohio and sees a definite connection between physical activity and mood enhancement. “I often recommend exercise for my psychotherapy clients, particularly for those who are anxious or depressed,” she says.
While that method may not be used by everyone, it seems that significant psychological benefits can be measured from exercise. As noted by the American Psychological Association, a study conducted with individuals with major depressive disorders looked at the impact different factors, including exercise, had on their mood. After a four-month trial period, researchers found that all individuals in the exercise and anti-depressant groups had much higher rates of remission than other groups. Based on those findings, researchers surmised that exercise can be comparable to anti-depressants for individuals with major depressive disorders.
Similarly, a 2010 study found that individuals who participated in yoga three times per week had increased levels of the brain chemical GABA, which is commonly associated with improved mood and lowered rates of depression. What’s more, physical activity has been linked with improved self-image and self-esteem. The natural release of endorphins during short bursts of exercise only add to a sense of well-being and euphoria.
Stress is one of the biggest triggers for developing or worsening serious health issues, such as heart disease, asthma, obesity, headaches, anxiety, and depression. However, exercise is a natural way of reducing stress. The release of brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine have a soothing, relaxing effect that help reduce stress levels.
But exercise may even go further. In a study conducted by the University of California San Francisco, researchers looked at how exercise affects cells on a long-term basis. The study focused on women with high levels of stress and had them exercise vigorously for 45 minutes over three days. They found that the women’s cells showed fewer signs of aging when compared with women that were inactive. In that way, researchers concluded that exercise may not only be helpful in reducing stress, but may also help to reverse the negative effects that stress can have on a cellular level.
Memory & Learning
Weight loss by exercise may also improve learning. During exercise, the body releases growth factors, and certain brain chemicals, that help to generate new cells and create connections in the brain. These connections are necessary to help us learn and remember how to do new things, such as perform a new task or do a math problem. What’s more, it seems that complicated activities like playing tennis help our brain to practice skills in coordination and attention.
In a study conducted by German researchers, findings showed that high school students who did 10 minutes of a complicated fitness routine scored better on a high-attention task than those who did not. Furthermore, research suggests that weight loss in obese individuals may improve memory.
A study that looked at overweight, postmenopausal women showed that weight loss through dieting changes brain function in areas that are key for memory. Lead author of the study Andreas Pettersson, MD notes that this is telling in the importance that weight loss can have on the body and brain. “Our findings suggest that obesity-associated impairments in memory function are reversible, adding incentive for weight loss,” he said.