Health and Well Being

The importance of exercise for better mental health

Most of us already know that exercise plays an important part in improving our physical health. But what may surprise you is just how much exercise can improve your mental health, including your mood and even more serious ailments such as depression and anxiety.

According the research performed by the National Institute of Health, “aerobic exercises, including jogging, swimming, cycling, walking, gardening, and dancing, have been proven to reduce anxiety and depression”. While the exact science behind how the metabolic aspects of exercise are still being studied, its impact is related to our increased blood circulation to the brain and body and its “physiologic reactivity to stress.”

In fact, according to Michele Olsen, Ph.D. and senior clinical professor of exercise physiology at Huntington University in Montgomery, Alabama, the positive effect of exercise on body and mind are immediate. As blood begins moving quickly to our muscles, we start burning calories and give a nearly instantaneous boost to our mood. Whether it’s walking, running, yoga, or cycling, the flooding of endorphins triggers the “runners high” or all around good feeling.

When it comes to children and school performance, exercise is an absolute must. Exercise has repeatedly shown a research studies to improve kids’ cognitive performance. This occurs in 3 core areas of improved performance during the school day:

  • Cognitive Skills and Attitudes  (such as ability to focus and concentrate in class, memory).
  • Academic Behaviors (such as conduct in the classroom, on time assignments, and completing homework).
  • Academic Achievement (standardized test scores, such as the beloved SAT).

In one study from the University of Illinois, school kids in the 6,7, and 8th grades who were part of the exercise control group improved 2-fold relative to the non-exercise group in “a range of cognitive tasks.” Specifically, two types of cognitive enhancements were found. First, the exercise control group showed a large increase in “attentional inhibition,” which measures one’s ability to block out distractions while focusing on the current task.

Second, the control group improved in “cognitive flexibility,” which means those kids were able to switch back and forth between different higher level tasks – those that require intellectual focus – while maintaining speed and accuracy.

If you’re interested in learning more about exercise and children’s health, visit the CDC’s Healthy Schools website for detailed suggestions and information.

With exercise such an important part of adult and child health, make sure that you or your children are incorporating exercise into your daily or weekly routines. Even if you’re busy, make the extra effort to go running or visit your Yoga class. If the research is right, you’ll not only feel better, but perform better too.


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