Neurological changes can make the positive effect exercise has on your brain more sustainable, research has found. People get additional benefits from the discipline of working out. The very act of pushing through a workout when you don’t feel like it strengthens your ability to deal with unpleasant emotions without avoiding them.
“Exercise itself can be helpful because it teaches people to tolerate distress in a way that mimics higher levels of arousal that can feel like anxiety,” says Norouzinia. She explains that this exposes a person to unpleasant sensations in a way that is safe. In the mental health field, this practice of engaging feared sensations in a controlled way is called therapeutic interoceptive exposure, and it improves a person’s ability to tolerate unpleasant sensations that they may have previously avoided.
This can be helpful in dealing with depression, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), substance use disorders, and personality disorders, Norouzinia says—or, really, any mental health challenge where a person tries to avoid feeling a particular emotion.
4. Strengthening the mind-body connection
To truly envision how exercise is mentally — not just physically — beneficial requires a radical shift from thinking of mind and body as separate, experts say.
“Basically, there’s not as big a divide between mental health and physical health as our culture and language might sometimes lead us to believe,” says Marina Weiss, a clinical psychologist at the Center for Innovation in Mental Health, based in the City. New York University’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
The brain and body are connected in many ways, for example through the vagus nerve. The mother of all cranial nerves descends from the brain through the spine and carries signals from the brain throughout the body, including to the heart, lungs and digestive system. It also carries feedback from the whole body back to the brain.
Stimulating the vagus nerve through exercise has been shown to strengthen the mind-body connection and help with everything from treatment-resistant depression to PTSD.
5. Increased pulse variability
A measure of health is the range our heart rate can safely vary from rest to exertion.
Heart rate variability is also considered an indicator of the complex brain-body interaction – showing how strong that connection is. Exercise improves heart rate variability.
Increased heart rate variability can help protect us from psychological problems such as depression, even when we’re facing other stressors, such as a cancer diagnosis, notes Weiss.
High-intensity interval training—bursts of intense exercise followed by intervals of slower, less demanding work—can especially increase this heart rate range. HIIT training can be helpful even for adults who haven’t been getting anywhere near the recommended 150 minutes of exercise per week, according to a study published in Journal of Exercise Science & Fitness found.
Just be sure to check with a doctor before starting a new regimen and ease into it.