Nav Dhunay on the science behind your workout

It’s a well-known fact that exercise is beneficial to your overall health.  However, researchers are finding that exercise isn’t only key to maintaining your athletic prowess, it’s also a fundamental component to mental health, body image and self-esteem.

An increasing number of mental health professionals in Canada and the United States are beginning to see a direct link between better mental health and a healthy lifestyle that includes regular exercise.  “Exercise is something that psychologists have been very slow to attend to,”says Michael Otto, a professor of psychology at Boston University. “People know that exercise helps physical outcomes. There is much less awareness of mental health outcomes — and much, much less ability to translate this awareness into exercise action.”

Michael Otto and his colleagues in academia began running controlled studies on the link between mental health and exercise in 2011. “There’s good epidemiological data to suggest that active people are less depressed than inactive people. And people who were active and stopped tend to be more depressed than those who maintain or initiate an exercise program,” James Blumenthal, a clinical psychologist at Duke University, said.

With evidence proving that exercise can reduce and abate depression, researchers began searching for other mental health issues that could be alleviated by routine exercise. Experts believe, because the panic symptoms associated with anxiety (increased heart rate, perspiration, shortness of breathe) mirror the effects of exercise, they can trick the brain into recognizing building anxiety as exercise, thus disabling the fight or flight response that is brought on by anxiety.

“Exercise in many ways is like exposure treatment,” says Jasper Smits, Co-Director of the Anxiety Research and Treatment Program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “People learn to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.”

Nav Dhunay, a tech entrepreneur who also enjoys weight training, says he workouts a couple times a week to reduce stress and keep his mind clear. “Years ago, I read an article about how regular exercise releases endorphins and dopamine in the brain,” explained Dhunay. “These bio-chemicals and reactions are released by the brain’s pleasure centre.”

With this information, Nav Dhunay surmised that exercise must be good for you, if your brain recognizes it as a pleasurably event.  “When you couple this with the physical benefits of exercise, it’s clear that exercise is important to brain health,” said Dhunay.

Recently, experts have asserted that even 10 minutes of daily exercise can reduce your risk of depression and stress exhaustion. “”Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning,” says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

As Ratey’s book points out, exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn. Strengthening these connections can fortify your mind against early onset dementia and Alzheimer’s and can help you work more efficiently.

Lastly, if you have friends who run frequently, you may hear them talk of a ‘runner’s high’. Experts have found that, like Nav Dhunay pointed out, the release of chemicals from the pleasure centre of the brain leaves runners feeling euphoric, relaxed and calm.

You don’t need to be an Olympic-caliber athlete to enjoy the many health and mental health benefits of exercise. Working within your skill and comfort level will ensure you benefit from exercise without over-exerting or injuring yourself.

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