The benefits of exercise have always gone well beyond losing weight and building muscle – the feelgood factor is one of the main reasons people keep coming back for more.
Scientists are now attempting to nail down the effects exercise has on the brain that trigger the post-workout feeling of euphoria. Several earlier studies showed that exercise can reduce the symptoms of depression over a long period, but new research has found that even a single bout of activity can benefit the brain.
A review published in the journal Brain Plasticity looked at previous studies analysing the effect of exercise on mental health and the brain and how it affects mood, memory, attention, motor/reaction times and creativity.
The research found that the most consistent effects of exercise were improved mood and reduced stress, as well as enhanced cognitive functions including short-term memory and problem solving. Just one workout was enough to produce these benefits.
A quick boost after one training session is undoubtedly a good thing, but there are greater benefits to be accrued by taking a long-term approach. Exercise is now prescribed on the NHS as an effective treatment for a wide range of problems, and the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence recommends a 10- to 14-week schedule that includes three training sessions a week, each lasting 45 minutes to one hour to treat mild or moderate depression.
Any kind of exercise can produce these benefits, so it’s best to pick an activity you actually enjoy doing to reduce the likelihood that you’ll give it up. A recent study found that bouldering for three hours a week can help alleviate some symptoms of depression.
In addition, the activity you do doesn’t necessarily need to be strenuous enough to induce a heavy sweat. Research from the University of Connecticut published in May this year found that even light to moderate activity can provide a mental health boost for those who live a largely sedentary lifestyle.