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How Exercise and the Release of Neurotransmitters can have a Positive Effect on our Mental Health

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Have you ever wondered what happens to the brain when we begin exercise?  Have you ever wondered why we feel the way we do when we include exercise in our lives? Many people are aware that regular exercise and physical activity have many health benefits.  Some of these benefits include increased muscle strength and muscle endurance along with increased cardiovascular capacity or in other words better heart health.  Whether your goal is to improve performance, lose weight, get stronger, or live a longer and healthier life, for a majority of people when we begin introducing exercise in our lives we tend to notice an overall difference  in how we generally feel about ourselves and our environment. A lot of people claim that exercising gives them increased energy, are more alert and focused while others claim that exercising makes them feel less stressed and puts them generally in a good mood altogether.

Thus this brings us back to the question, what happens to the brain when we exercise?  As we exercise our brain releases what is called brain chemical hormones  or neurotransmitters.  These neurotransmitters relay messages between the nerve cells in our brains and play a crucial role in the way we feel both mentally and physically.  Any imbalance of these chemicals can lead to negative symptoms or even illnesses.  Although many different kinds of  neurotransmitters are released we will only focus on 3 specific kinds that play a role in our mental health as it relates to exercise.  The chemical hormones that will be discussed are endorphins, dopamine and serotonin.  Without getting to in depth  we will briefly look into each of these neurotransmitters separately as it is released from the brain during exercise and how it  affects our mental state and well being.

Endorphins: This neurotransmitter acts as natural morphine like substance when attached to oppioid receptors. It is also responsible for reducing our perception of pain that can act as a natural pain reliever during the different stresses we put our bodies through during exercise.  This neurotransmitter is also responsible for  reducing stress and depression by causing a euphoric effect or natural high that puts you in a better state of mind.  This is  why many people who exercise before their work shift claim they feel more focused, awake and alert  and are ready to attack their day.  Those who put exercise after their work shift claim that exercise helps them cope with stress from the events of a busy or tough day  and feel calmer and more relaxed.  Although short term effects can be noticed, endorphins can take some time to build up in our systems.  As we continue to exercise you will notice the effects and long term benefits  of this neurotransmitter.

Dopamine: This chemical hormone is released when a reward is expected through behaviours and actions we perform. Dopamine also boosts our motivation and attention to accomplish specific tasks for the feeling of satisfaction. It ensures us that the things that we do are actually worth doing.  In relation to exercise whether short or long term, those who remain consistent with their workouts  will feel the full effect of this hormone when  progress and achievement is noticed in the direction that cater toward their fitness goals.  Dopamine is in charge of the reward center in our brains and will reward you along the way to keep you focused and keep you on track.

Serotonin: Is largely responsible for our overall mood , how we feel and overall sense of well-being.  It is also said that increased serotonin can help improve appetite and sleep cycles.  Low levels of serotonin is also linked very closely to loneliness and depression.   Exercise (especially  through cardiovascular training) has been proven to increase and balance the production and release of this hormone.   Adequate levels can increase your mood and counteract that loneliness and depression. It can improve self esteem, self confidence and perception of self and self worth.  It may also give you the feeling of being someone of importance to others.  Other great ways to keep Serotonin levels in check are to expose yourself to natural sunlight, proper balanced diet, massage and also surrounding yourself with close friends and family or even joining a group fitness class and surrounding yourself with others with the same interests, goals, and positive mindset.

The brain releases many different kinds of neurotransmitters as we exercise. These chemical hormones may have some similarities and some may signal different responses.  Overall, as exercise becomes part of your lifestyle,  improvement in cognition, attention, energy, mood and motivation will become apparent.   Finding ways to keep our brains healthy to balance these neurotransmitters  will keep you motivated in tackling your fitness goals.  You will not only improve physically and aesthetically  but also notice a difference mentally and the way you interact with others and your environments as you  strive towards a better you.