Exercise is one of the only ways humans can control their hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis or HPA axis (Dishman). The hypothalamus releases corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), which stimulates the anterior pituitary gland to release adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH). ACTH then stimulates your adrenal cortex to produce cortisol. Cortisol levels are negatively correlated with mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Exercise induces CRH, ACTH, and cortisol secretion in your body, causing you to have a mood boost for around 24 hours afterward. Regular exercise elevates your serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine levels which help suppress the effects of depression and anxiety.
How Exercise and Mental Health are Related, in a study from the University of Michigan, researchers found that people with higher cortisol levels had increased hippocampal volume and performed better on a learning task. Higher cortisol levels are typically associated with having a healthy mental state. The researcher’s results suggest that “people who have an inherent predisposition to secrete more HPA hormones — or those who can learn to do so as a result of positive experiences such as exercise — may develop the ability to cope better” (University of Michigan Health System). That is, some people inherently have healthier mental health than others which allows them to deal with stress and anxiety better than those individuals who aren’t as genetically fortunate. When you work out regularly, your body releases and dopamine, leading to feelings of euphoria, self-esteem building, and the release of tension.
Elevated cortisol levels are also associated with lower memory function in older adults, according to a study published by JAMA Psychiatry. The researchers found that “lower morning cortisol was associated with poorer episodic memory functioning.” This means that having higher cortisol levels typically has positive effects on your mental health, which allows you to focus better and remember events more clearly. A study from Front Psychiatry conducted by Michael Yassa discovered that “higher resting-state plasma cortisol level is associated with increased grey matter volume (GMV) and function of the hippocampal complex.” The hippocampus is an area in your brain responsible for emotion regulation, learning new things, and the formation of memories; thus, it is vital that everyone maintain their hippocampal health.
There are many easy-to-do forms of exercise that are effective in reducing stress. Gentle yoga is a good option for individuals who can’t handle traditional forms of intense vigorous workouts. If your Exercise and Mental Health are severe enough, you should consult with your medical doctor before beginning an exercise regimen. The results of this study show that only around 15 minutes worth of exercising can have health benefits on your brain and body which could potentially be helpful for people suffering from various types of mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD (University of Michigan Health System).