A Natural High

Does Exercise Really Help My Mental Health?

A lot of people say that exercise is a great tool for managing stress, and reducing anxiety and depression. But does it actually help, and how? 

I’ve labored over reading some really cool research, written in science-y language, so you don’t have to. I’m going to summarize the main points, and give you a nice take away. My aim is to deepen your understanding on this topic, beyond what you have heard before about exercise. I know I’ve already learned so much while preparing this for you. Ready? Let’s jump in!

Runner’s High

Have you ever heard of a runner’s high? Well, the word choice is right on the nose, because it involves cannabinoids. No, not those cannabinoids. But you have your own cannabinoid factory in your brain. Wild, right?! Your body produces something called endocannabinoids. Endocannabinoids are molecules that send messages in your brain, organs, immune system and nervous system. I know that’s a bit science-y so I’ll break that down.

If you’re anything like me, you may have a hard time convincing yourself to get some exercise. You may want to know that it’s gonna be worth it. Are you actually going to get some results? Let’s table our thoughts about weight loss for now, and just focus on how exercise can improve stress level and mood. I hope to prove to you, and to myself, that when it comes to your mental health, the answer is yes! It is worth it to exercise. 

  Endocannabinoids (or eCBs for short) can be found all over your body. Research suggests that they play a regulatory role, meaning that they are like supervisors of some biological processes. If your body were the United States Postal Service, with various locations to receive, sort and send mail, your endocannabinoids would be like managers at these locations. 

Now, you might be thinking, what about endorphins? I thought that they caused the runner’s high. Well you’re right. But how well endorphins work depends on the health of the eCB system. Plus, eCBs may actually help release the endorphins! 

Getting a boost of endorphins through exercise is a great way to boost mood…in the short term. But what if you want to get a more lasting effect? 

Adapting Better to Future Stress

I got you, boo. And so do your eCB’s! So there’s this eCB, called anandamide (AEA for short). Well, when you experience stress, your brain releases cortisol. Cortisol starts this cascade of events throughout your body, putting you in stress mode. You’ve probably heard of chronic stress. That’s when your body is in stress mode for long stretches of time. It’s bad for your health to be in this mode for a long time. 

So something that helps buffer the stress would be good, right? You’re in luck, because AEA can do that! When your brain responds to stress by releasing cortisol, AEA gets released too, and helps tame the stress response. I imagine AEA like a mom consoling a toddler who is starting to get worked up about something.

I bet you’re wondering what this has to do with exercise. Well, AEA increases after exercise! And because of AEA’s ability to buffer stress, researchers are recognizing its potential to help manage depression and anxiety.

That’s great news! But how much exercise do we need to do to get benefits? Well, it depends. Exercise is a very individualized thing.

Researchers have seen that “a single session of endurance training at 70-80% of the maximum heart rate capacity provides the optimal eCB increase.” Your max heart rate is going to be based on several things like your age, gender, and exercise training level.

Optimize Your Exercise

There’s a simple formula for calculating your max heart rate.

220 – your age = your max heart rate

So for someone who’s 36 years old, 220-36 = 184. 184 is the max heart rate.

Then you find out what is 70% to  80% of the max heart rate.

Max heart rate x 0.7 = 70% of max heart rate

184 x 0.7 = 129

184 x 0.8 = 147

So, for a 36 year old female to promote an optimal increase of eCB’s, she would need to keep her heart rate between 129 and 147 bpm when exercising.

CDC: How to find your max heart rate 

Important Note: there are some health conditions that involve forms of exercise intolerance. We won’t get into that here. But this is your disclaimer that if you, or other people you know have such a health condition, there may be differences in finding the most benefit out of their exercise routine. Remember, exercise looks different for every body. 

Heart rate monitors are useful tools for determining if your workout is putting your heart rate in that range for getting your eCB boost. If you don’t have a wearable heart rate monitor, you can often find them on workout machines at the gym, especially treadmills and ellipticals. You can also find your pulse on your wrist, and using a watch or other timer, count the beats per minute. Or you can count for 15 seconds and multiply the beats by 4. 

Mayo Clinic – How to Find Your Heart Rate

There’s so much more I want to share with you about how exercise boosts mood and helps defend against depression and anxiety! For more, see my posts on how Your Brain Can Grow Stronger and, on about what qualifies as beneficial exercise depends on the person. (gender, age, health conditions, exercise training level, etc.) There is such a thing as overdoing it. I discuss that in Getting the Right Fit and Exercise and ME/CFS.