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4 mental health benefits of exercise

From less stress to a boost in self-esteem, exercise is as great for your brain as it is for your body, writes sports cardiologist and Blackmores expert Dr Jason Kaplan.

Many people hit the gym or go for a run to improve cardiovascular health, build muscle and of course improve their physique, but working out has above-the-neck benefits, too. And you don't have to be a fitness fanatic to reap the benefits.

Research indicates that modest amounts of exercise – even just 30 minutes per day – can make a difference. No matter your age or fitness level, you can learn to use exercise as a powerful tool to feel better.

The key to reaping the benefits, however, is to stay consistent with your exercise efforts. Schedule it into your day so you know it'll happen. If you do, here are just some of the mental health benefits you could experience.

1.    Improved mood and higher self-esteem – Exercise releases chemicals like endorphins and serotonin that create feelings of happiness. It can also get you out in the world, help to reduce any feelings of loneliness and isolation, and put you in touch with other people.

Regular exercise can also foster your sense of self-worth and make you feel strong and powerful. You'll feel better about your appearance and, by meeting even small exercise goals, you'll feel a sense of achievement.

2.    Reduced stress levels and greater resilience – If you exercise regularly, it can help reduce your stress and symptoms of some mental health conditions. The chemical norepinephrine is released when you exercise, which can help moderate the brain's response to stress and help improve thinking clouded by stressful events. Exercise also helps stimulate parts of your brain that aren't as responsive when you're feeling depressed. 

When it comes to life's emotional challenges, it'll also help you respond in a healthy way, instead of negative behaviours that ultimately only make symptoms worse.  

3.    Better memory and thinking ability – The same endorphins that make you feel better also help you concentrate and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells. Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don't. 

4.    Improved sleep - Physical activity improves the quality of sleep by helping you fall asleep faster and deepening your sleep. Sleeping better can improve your mental outlook the next day, as well as improve your mood. Just be careful not to engage in exercise too late in the day. Evening practices within a few hours of bedtime may leave you too energised to sleep.

If you're new to exercise, start off with just a few minutes a day, and increase your workout as you feel more energised.

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“Kindness is the language that the deaf can hear and the blind can see.” – Mark Twain