Exercise and Mental Health

Winter Exercise
Living Well

When Dr. John Koutras thinks about exercise, he doesn’t picture the sweating that improves our physical strength and performance. He goes right to brain health. “Exercise leads to neurobiological health,” he said at a recent talk sponsored by the Howard Center. “Mood is linked to higher amounts of serotonin, nerve growth, and the good kind of hormones. All of these releases allow for neurogenesis to occur.”

In case you are wondering, neurogenesis is a good thing. Exercise has been shown to reduce stress levels and lead to brain plasticity through the growth of new neurons. A 2019 study published in the Frontiers in Neuroscience shows that this remapping of the brain leads to an increase in cognitive function. People who have regular levels of intense exercise tend to have higher brain function as they age.

Dr. John Koutras, a professor with the Larner College of Medicine at the University of Vermont and a practicing child and adolescent psychiatrist, spoke about the connection between mental health and exercise as the featured speaker in the Howard Center World Mental Health Day series.  This series was supported by Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Vermont. 

During a pandemic, we face a constant barrage of bad news, while also fighting social isolation. “Many people have decreased daily activity levels as they work from home, and kids are playing less sports.” Dr. Koutras encourages people to buck the pandemic trend and get up and move.  

17 percent of individuals are affected by depression at some point in their life. Exercise can help, including research published in the Journal of Midwifery & Women's Health that has shown that it leads to decreased rates of postpartum depression. While this is not preventative, it will help the new mother feel like the world is more manageable. Breathing fresh air, getting out of the house, and getting blood moving through your body can make all the difference after a night of fractured sleep.    

For people affected by a major depressive disorder, exercise has been shown to have even higher beneficial effects than those who are not afflicted by depression. In his talk, Dr. Koutras discussed research showing that exercise in this population when led by an instructor was even more significant.

This makes sense from a few angles. The instructor gives feedback during exercise, adding a social component to the interaction. The instructor also expects a time commitment. When someone is waiting for you at 10 a.m. on a Saturday, you are much more likely to show up, give it your best, and push yourself to complete the class.  If it’s just a date with your sneakers, they won’t hold it against you if you run for 20 minutes instead of a full hour, and they won’t call you up and ask where you were that morning if you chose to sleep in instead.

A few ways to integrate exercise into your pandemic life:

  • Walk instead of drive whenever possible.
  • When you are heading up the stairs, go back to the bottom and take them again.
  • Get out on your bicycle!  There are incredible gravel roads crisscrossing Vermont, and fantastic bike paths in many counties.
  • Get into a routine of waking up 45 minutes earlier each day and get right out for a walk or run—before you drink your coffee, before you get pulled into your phone, just get outside and walk before starting your day.
  • Push yourself a little harder: when walking, walk more vigorously; when running, intersperse your jog with sprints to get your heart rate up.
  • Walk the dog! Your pooch would love to get out more, and your mind and body will reap the benefits too.
  • Take an outdoor high intensity training class, or find a yoga instructor you like on Zoom. Check out the website of local gyms and yoga studios for class schedules.

Mental Health outcomes of exercise are vast. Beyond improved cognitive function, “exercise improves global self-esteem, subjective and psychological well-being, quality of life, and resilience,” says Dr. Koutras. That list is nothing to sneeze at.