How sports transforms the brain and improves mental health

How sports transforms the brain and improves mental health

Reading Time: 10 minutes

With all our advanced communication we are still so disconnected

Online trolling has replaced entertainment. A culture characterized by polarizing reductive opinions has allowed people to treat one-another with merciless disdain.

The fast-paced continuous news feeds of war, climate change, flooding, political conflict, crime, and now worldwide pandemics only adds to the stress people face every day. We now live in an information-driven world that is obsessed with the next story— a virtual reality distracted from the needs of our physicality, unaware of what’s happening to our mental health.

As a result, mental health disorders are a rising problem worldwide. The recommendation of medication for stress, anxiety, and depression is commonplace. Doctors haste in their treatment, recommending medication as a panacea for mental illness. Pressure from drug companies, and long waiting lists, find doctors expediently writing prescriptions.

Overwhelming scientific evidence about the mental health effects of frequent exercise

If you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, you may want to reconsider your lifestyle. Are you getting enough exercise or participating in sport? Your cure to anxiety and depression may be as simple as that.

Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that frequent exercise increases the number of brain cells. Intense cardio activity changes the structure of the brain, improving attention, focus, memory, and mood.

The Rise of Mental-health Disorders

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), mental health disorders continue to rise globally. The vast majority of developed countries have issues with mental disorders and substance abuse in more than 10% of the population.

Many people find it hard to admit they have issues related to mental health. The word mental is an intangible condition with a stigma. Problems of the mind and behavior are difficult to grasp and measure, with any degree of accuracy. The cure is not like saying you need to lose a few pounds, which may also be the case.

Some people are self-aware and conscious of having extreme thoughts and emotions. Many are less aware of how they perceive the world and are only mindful of their behavior when others complain, or it lands them in trouble.

 Mental health symptoms can appear in many ways—as severe introversion, explosive temper, impatience, paranoia, compulsive, or impulsive behavior. Medical experts diagnose several types of mental health disturbances—anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, psychoses, dementia, and developmental disorders, including autism. 

There are effective strategies for preventing mental disorders. Health care authorities and social services provide treatment and social support but have limited resources. Extreme cases need medication and clinical help, and acute cases such as dementia, still have no effective cures.

Understanding different types of mental health disorders

Common types of disorders are Anxiety and Depression. Sufferers can manage their condition with a change in lifestyle, family support, and, if necessary, medication. Severe cases of bipolar disorder, manifest itself with manic and depressive episodes—separated by periods of relative calm. Symptoms express periods of elevated moods, irritability, over-activity, rapid speech, and depressive episodes. Treatment requires medication to stabilize mood and psychological support.

Schizophrenia and other psychoses are severe mental disorders. People diagnosed with schizophrenia can experience distorted thinking and extreme perceptions of their circumstances. Sufferers have wild emotional states, changes in speech, a sense of self, and behavior. Symptoms can include hallucinations, delusions, and extreme paranoia.

Treatment of schizophrenia requires consultation with specialists. Patients often need medication, psychosocial support, assisted living, and supported employment.

Dementia is a chronic progressive disease. There is a deterioration in cognitive function, affected by aging. People with dementia experience impaired memory and have trouble with thinking. They may have problems with orientation, comprehension, and calculation. Additional symptoms may include reduced learning capacity, language impediments, and judgment.

People with dementia may experience deterioration in emotional control and social behavior. Alzheimer’s disease or stroke can cause the onset of dementia. Effective treatments are still in various stages of clinical trials.

If you are suffering from anxiety or depression or a more extreme mental health disorder, you’re not alone. There are hundreds of millions of people around the globe with similar conditions.

Improve Mental Health With A Change In Lifestyle

Anxiety is the most common mental health problem, for 284 million people worldwide. People with anxiety experience apprehension, panic, and worries about the future. There is a feeling of edginess or difficulty concentrating.

Other symptoms are restless fidgeting, tension headaches, trembling, and the inability to relax. Some experience physical symptoms, including lightheadedness, dizziness, sweating, and rapid breathing. Maybe even a heightened heart rate, palpitations, discomfort in the ribs, and a dry mouth.

Depression affects 264 million globally, with women being more affected than men. People suffering from major depression may experience prolonged sadness and a loss of interest in everyday pleasures. Depression causes feelings of guilt or low self-worth. If you are suffering from depression, you may experience insomnia, a lack of appetite, a constant sense of tiredness, and prolonged poor concentration. It can also result in physical pain, such as backache, with no clear evidence of illness.

For those with clinical depression, it’s like a black curtain has come down over their reality, which can go on for many years. Life seems to have no purpose and, in extreme cases, leads to thoughts of suicide. Depression often results in the need to sleep during the day with no desire to be productive. It’s a terrible feeling. Everything seems pointless. If you allow it, depression can rule your entire life.

Treatment of mild cases of depression includes cognitive behavior therapy or psychotherapy. Adult sufferers with moderate and severe depression often end up on antidepressants. Managing depression requires examining stress at home and at work.

Other issues may be lack of employment, a personal sense of purpose, or financial problems. There may be physical or mental abuse. It’s vital to receive support from family and friends and making an effort to be active. Social engagement is challenging, as many people would prefer to be left alone.

Often ignored by sufferers of anxiety and depression is the effectiveness of being active, doing exercise, and sport. People turn to medication for a quick fix, but fail to examine their lifestyle.

It’s also common to rely on distractions to alleviate depression without realizing it. Stimulants such as TV, or reading countless fictional books, are temporary fixes. The moment the activity is over, you’re often back to square one, facing reality, once again.

If you turn to alcohol or drugs, there is a short-lived high that doesn’t solve the problem, and in fact, it only makes things worse. Alcohol and drugs impair physical health and also clouds your thinking. You feel much worse in the long run. You get used to your physical and mental and state and can’t even remember what it’s like to feel normal.

If you are suffering from depression, you need to take responsibility and do something to change your way of life. It means being active, in the literal sense. You need to share your problem with others, examining your life, and sometimes facing hard decisions.

  • Have you spoken to anyone about how you’re feeling?
  • How do you spend your time?
  • Which activities are you doing?
  • Are you overthinking?
  • Are you focused on yourself or others?
  • Are you taking the time to regenerate your energy, or are you always working?
  • Is your lifestyle balanced?

Exercise and Sport Aids Mental Health

The Mental Health Foundation has reported on the findings of research on the effect of exercise on mental health. The report states that frequent exercise and sport are an essential aid to treatment.

The research covered the treatment of anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, and dementia, examining the intensity and duration of the exercise performed, as well as the scope of activities. The tests examined different types of sports and consistent participation in exercise over a period.

The results showed that participating in sports changes your brain, and develops the mind, by simulating everyday life. Sport trains the mind and the body and forces you to coordinate with the world around you to achieve your goals. Sports participation requires skill, discipline, courage, and patience—many of the characteristics that help you deal with the difficulties of everyday life.

The Science Behind Exercise and its Effect on the Brain

Wendy Suzuki, Professor of Neuroscience, has researched how exercise has a brain-changing effect. Intense cardio training prevents depression and Alzheimer’s disease.

“Physical activity, simply moving your body, has an immediate and long-lasting benefit for your brain. Benefits that can last the rest of your life. Exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain today.”

Wendy Suzuki

The brain is the most complex structure known to humankind.

The prefrontal cortex is critical to decision making, focus, attention, and personality. The second area of importance is located in the temporal lobe on the right and left side of the brain. The Hippocampus is critical in forming long-term memory, storing facts, and events.

Wendy became renowned for her research that experimented with individuals cells located in the Hippocampus. Her work examined how brain cells recorded brief events to form new memories.

Her research inadvertently helped her discovered the brain-changing effects of exercise.

The irony is that Wendy was so immersed in her work; she became disassociated from her friends and social life. Her singular focus on work made her miserable. After deciding to do something about it, she went on a river-rafting trip and understood how out of shape she was.

In a remarkable turnaround, Wendy began to hit the gym with the same intensity she applied to her work. After each workout in the gym, Wendy experienced a great mood and energy boost.

After a year and a half of her exercise program and losing twenty-five pounds, Wendy reached an epiphany. She realized that her research and work was going much better because she was able to hold her focus and attention for longer. Her memory had improved. Wendy realized that the prolonged period of exercise had changed her brain. She had inadvertently experimented on herself.

Being a curious neuroscientist, Wendy researched further into the effects of exercise on the brain. She discovered that intense physical activity improves attention, focus, memory, and mood. As a result of this discovery, Wendy shifted her research focus to understanding how exercise affected the brain.

The results of her new research concluded that exercise is the most transformative way to change the brain.

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1. A single workout increases levels of neurotransmitters, with immediate effect. Exercise increases dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline, neurotransmitters, that increase mood.
2. A single workout can help you shift and focus your attention for at least two hours after the workout.
3. Exercise improves your reaction time. You respond more quickly, both mentally and physically.

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Your regime must increase your cardiorespiratory function to achieve a long-lasting positive effect of exercise for your brain. An intense exercise regime changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function.

Exercise produces brand new brain cells in the Hippocampus, increasing its volume and long-term memory. The most transformative action is the protective effect on the brain. As you repeat workouts, raising your heart rate, the Prefrontal cortex, and Hippocampus gain mass. These two regions of the brain are most susceptible to disease and decline, with age. By strengthening these areas of the brain, you reduce these degenerative effects.

Exercise won’t cure dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, but long-term activity will deter and prolong these diseases.

What’s the least amount of exercise you need to do to achieve the necessary cell growth in the brain?

The answer is 3-4 exercise sessions a week of 30 min. The critical point is to get the heart rate up with an aerobic workout, which can be achieved in several ways, such as vigorous walking, or using the stairs.

The Effect of Individual, Team and Organized sport

The studies cited by the Mental Health Foundation also examined the state of regression in mental health disorders, for participants from different kinds of sports activities. The studies examined participants in different conditions:

  • Team sport
  • Individual sport
  • Non-competitive Physical Activity
  • Competitive Organized Physical Activity
  • Indoor Activities
  • Outdoor Activities

Outdoor sports had more positive effects on mental well-being than in-door activities and left participants with greater feelings of revitalization. Positive engagement in outdoor activity, decreases tension, confusion, anger, and depression, with increased energy. Working out in a natural environment has a 6% lower risk of poor mental health.

Yet, outdoor activities are subject to seasonality and changes in weather conditions. Extreme weather can be a barrier to participation. Indoor activities have the advantage of being engaged in physical activity year-round.

Team sports athletes had the lowest depression and anxiety scores. The type of competition, the environment, and team involvement can make a significant difference with a very positive effect on mental health. Team athletes in organized events show better mental health outcomes than individual athletes

These studies concluded essential targets for health benefits.

Either physical activity of 150 min a week of moderate-intensity or 75 min a week of vigorous exercise.

Even low doses of physical activity are associated with lower depression levels.

How Different sports affect the mental state

Examples of different sports and how they affect the mental state

Running- Whether on a track, in a park, or out in the wild, running improves your mindset. The runner’s high comes with the release of endorphins that spike two-hours after a session. Endorphins inhibit pain, reduces stress, and creates a sense of well being.

Swimming- Reduces anxiety and washes away depression. Studies have shown that swimming reduces the need for mental health medication. This fluid exercise reconditions the entire body and mind. Competitive swimming, even on a local level, challenges individuals to unimaginable limits.

Soccer- Competitive team sports such as soccer, have a significant increase in mental health benefits. Team players report fewer days off sick and have an active social life. The team mentality has a mindset with unparalleled benefits. By acting as a group, players improve communication skills, self-esteem, and collaboration. It teaches equal opportunity, endurance, a sense of fair play, and leadership skills. Team players can have great laughs and a lot of fun. But they also go through tough times together, creating close bonds. 

Volleyball-Organizing a local volleyball game with friends or work colleagues is a framework for a healthy social environment. Volleyball is an excellent all-round exercise that challenges every part of the body. It’s easy to arrange, and you can play it in all weathers.

These are a few examples of sports you can organize as a group or activities you can enjoy on your own. Team sport enables a neutral apolitical environment. Group activity connects people beyond race, religion, or ethnicity. A balanced environment in which good mental health can thrive. 

Heads Up for Mental Health

In 2019 Heads Together and the Football Association of Great Britain launched the Heads Up campaign. The goal is to bring awareness to the problems of mental health. Those that suffer are often distanced from those immediately around them.

Lead by personalities such as Prince William and Gareth Southgate. The campaign encourages people to get involved in sports and to become aware of the needs of people with mental health problems.

Conditions such as anxiety and depression can be managed with professional help and by taking personal responsibility. Engaging in team sports or regular exercise is an immediate and transformative way to change and protect your brain, and improve your mental health.