Playing sports and exercising provides improvement in mental, social, and physical health. The physical aspects — lower levels of high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, and so on — have all been known for some time. What more and more researchers are realizing is that sports and fitness activities also improve people’s social connections, self-esteem, and mental outlook. By creating an exercise plan and adhering to it, people can see improvements in mood and social relationships. To fully appreciate how exercise can improve mental health, it is important to look at the social and personal aspects, the actual body changes, and the ways you can measure progress.
The Mental and Physical Effects of Exercise
Exercising is one way to enhance social connections. Playing team sports provides an outlet to meet others and gain a network of supportive individuals. Positive social relationships allow for mutual support and encouragement, a sense of identity, and information to help with overcoming obstacles. In some cases, sports can be used to create social bonds that allow for reintegration into society, such as with veterans returning from combat or people who have survived disasters and epidemics. Strong social connections are also established via friendly competition, shared accomplishments, and more through the use of wearable tech and motion sensors that offer exact metrics and easy sharing abilities.
Physical activity also allows for a greater sense of ability and capability in everyday life. By practicing a skill and gaining instant feedback, or improving on pinpointed aspects of a game, such as running faster or having more stamina, people feel a sense of mastery and accomplishment. This sense of accomplishment as the result of work allows for a greater sense of self-esteem and self-regard. There has also been evidence of exercise creating better overall moods. Research suggests that physical activity allows for a more relaxed state of mind, higher levels of concentration, and better organization of tasks. Much of the science behind these findings focuses on the hormones and endorphins that are released during physical activity.
Speaking of Endorphins, What Are They and How Do They Work?
Throughout the day, your body releases chemicals and hormones. These chemicals impact how your body operates by finding their specific place in the body to send a message. To illustrate this, think of putting a plug into a socket to turn on a lamp. There is a lot left to learn about these chemicals, what they are and how they work, but researchers have found there are two main body chemicals that play into exercise and mood simultaneously: cortisol and endorphins.
Cortisol is a chemical your body produces during stressful times. This chemical activates the “fight or flight” response in the face of emotional or physical dangers. During this process, the body also dampens the activity of certain systems, such as the reproductive and digestive systems, to concentrate energy on preparing to either fight or escape danger. It is important to remember that our bodies need cortisol — it’s what helps us stay alert throughout the day — but too much cortisol can cause health issues such as weight gain, high blood pressure, and fatigue.
Endorphins are chemicals that interact with your body’s neurons and impact how the neurons relay messages to the other cells in your body. One of the main functions of endorphins is to block pain receptors. Instead of feeling as much of the pain, your body floods the system with endorphins to ease pain. This happens with several activities in addition to exercise, such as eating spicy food or giving a big presentation. Endorphins released by physical activity also use up excess cortisol, which prevents many of the negative side effects.
Tracking Performance to Improve Mental Health
Tracking physical performance is a great tool to use while embarking on an athletics and fitness course. There are a few ways in which this happens. Fitness, motion, and performance data allows for a more real sense of accomplishment and a measure of how well fitness and exercise are working together. With instant feedback on areas for improvement when working on skill development, our sense of defeat is short-lived, as we have actionable insights to make the appropriate changes.
As stated above, developing a sense of accomplishment is one of the best ways to enhance self-esteem. By measuring performance and progress, you can compare recent results to previous results to see how much you have learned and gained from the experience. Many people are intimidated by fitness programs, especially after being sedentary for a long period of time. Using fitness tracking and motion sensors allows for tangible progress measurement — increasing motivation. Additionally, programs such as the Couch to 5K break up people’s fitness goals into smaller pieces, making the process seem less daunting.
By tracking health data, people can track other factors in their fitness program as well. Food diaries are important for many people, especially as some foods cause certain mood changes that others do not. Additionally, tracking mood allows people to measure how their moods are changing as a result of exercise. By tracking food intake, exercise progress, and mood changes, people are able to achieve a whole picture of how they are learning and growing as a person.
Joining sports teams and forming relationships through fitness and athletics is a great way to address mental health concerns, as is working out alone and tracking your progress. The benefits of sport and exercise touch almost every area of our lives, and our mind is no exception.