Feeling Down? Head to the Gym!

brain-on-exerciseWouldn’t it be nice if there was a guaranteed method to alleviate depression, improve memory, de-stress, focus, and stick to your goals? It sounds like a cognitive miracle, doesn’t it? Research has shown that exercise can do just that. This article in Women’s Health Magazine lists these five outcomes as the direct result of exercise. The article claims that increased exercise results in increased blood flow to the brain; this apparently helps cognition, memory, and stress levels. The article cites several medical and psychological studies to support its assertions, which is certainly pretty convincing.

First, the article asserts that exercise alleviates depression. Besides the experiment cited in the article, I found research, including the following study, that supports this assertion. The study states that changes in baseline physical activity levels were associated with changes in mental health. The relationship was strong in the between person conditions, but not as strong in the within person conditions. This likely indicates that depression and mental health are not solely dependent on activity levels, but are more holistically affected. However, the relationship did exist in both conditions.

The article next contends that exercise can help us de-stress. The above study on “mental health” included anxiety as well as depression. The study found that changes in exercise levels certainly related to changes in anxiety. Another study  found similar results: those who participated in Qigong exercise reported significantly lower levels of anxiety after a session of exercise.

The article also states that memory is improved by engaging in exercise. Many studies have shown this to be true of both rats and humans; in particular, a study of rats round that exercise facilitated memory acquisition, memory retention, and reversal learning. All three of these demonstrations of memory were improved after rats exercised regularly.

The last claim in the article is that exercise helps with attentional focus and sticking to goals, because exercise is often unpleasant and laborious and requires significant commitment, focus, and organization in order to go through with it successfully. This was a much more difficult assertion to validate with research. It assumes several steps of relation — first, that those who exercise do so with successful focus and perseverance. Second, it assumes that they are then able and willing to apply those skills to other situations, outside of their exercise habits. If both of these premises are true, then it might follow that the individuals who learn how to focus and persevere due to exercise then tend to demonstrate these abilities in other aspects of their lives. If that is the case, it seems inaccurate to me to attribute these outcomes directly to the exercise, but rather to simple learning.

Overall, I think the article that I found, though found a more of a mainstream popular culture magazine, was fairly accurate and well-researched in its claims regarding the cognitive benefits of exercise. The article was rather brief in its descriptions of the studies involved and the potential outcomes, but linked out to other articles providing further information on each claim, which I thought was very helpful.

I find this topic fascinating — I always feel like a better version of myself when I’ve been exercising regularly. My mood and overall sharpness seem higher. I find myself wondering if there are other benefits to exercising. Other studies have found that exercise may improve our ability to think creatively.  Do any of you find this to be true for you? What other cognitive benefits do you see in your life when you exercise regularly?

5 thoughts on “Feeling Down? Head to the Gym!

  1. missfitz

    Really enjoyed your post! I know I can say whenever I feel stressed and overwhelmed, and subsequently down, I will tell my friends that I need to go to the gym to feel better and sounded like a crazy person. I am so very glad to now have research to back up my own feelings! Especially the part about mental sharpness, and laborious, unpleasant tasks. I think that there is a lot unsaid about the importance of accomplishing small goals. I really enjoyed your post, thank you so much for your research!

  2. lmaches5

    This definitely sounds like me… I always feel more organized and at ease if I have been exercising. It takes commitment and certain drive to will yourself to go the gym and workout regularly, and I certainly think that affects the way I approach other situations in life. My schedule is packed and sometimes just making it to the gym any given day is a huge achievement and if I was able to do that, I can do anything! I feel more willing to knock out my school work, run ,my errands, etc. I’m wondering too however, if this is just a result of simple learning or if there is something about exercise that is just stimulating to humans that supercharges us! Thanks for you post, very interesting and relatable!

  3. jfreud

    I have also seen that regular exercise is supposed to help alleviate insomnia. If that is the case, I wonder if some of the improvements listed can be attributed to sleeping better as well as exercise. That would be an interesting causal relationship to look into.

  4. arunk

    Great post! I know for myself exercising really helps to keep my energy levels up. Even on days when it’s hard to just get out of bed, going to the gym before work or class really helps to wake me up and keep me going for the rest of the day. I have also noticed huge improvements in my mood when I maintain a regular exercise routine. I’m not sure if that’s a result of just feeling less sluggish or because of physiological changes in the body after exercising. Either way, I can definitely relate to this post!

  5. aestero

    This was a great post! I can definitely relate to this because I feel like this is very accurate and true. I myself feel like all of these outcomes are due to the fact that I exercised. After exercising, I do catch myself feeling de-stressed (especially after a stressful week), more focused, and sticking to my goals (such as getting through that reading for the week). Although I knew that these three outcomes were a result of exercising before reading this article, I do find it interesting to find out that exercising helps alleviate depression and improves memory. Exercising helping with alleviating depression wasn’t so much of a surprise to me, but learning that exercise improves memory sure was. It’s great to hear about research that concludes that exercise helps improve memory. Although we already knew that exercise overall was a great thing to do physically, it’s also nice to hear that exercising has some mental and cognitive benefits.

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