FIC Explores the Science Behind how Exercise Impacts our Mental Health

FIC Explores the Science Behind how Exercise Impacts our Mental Health
By Erin Phelan

By Erin Phelan

Fitness Industry Council of Canada

Ask any runner why they run, and invariably you will hear about the runner’s high. For the longest time, this was interpreted as the endorphins hitting the brain, but recent research has found that exercise increases levels of endocannabinoids – similar to that found in cannabis – into the bloodstream, which cross easily into the brain, causing mood-enhancing neuromodulators which promotes positive effects on our mental health. Post run, the body can experience a sense of calm.


But it isn’t simply running – the euphoric, chemical change in our brain comes from all forms of exercise, and we are only starting to truly understand the power of physical activity on our mental health. On Bell Let’s Talk Day, Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FIC) has inspired its members to open their facilities to Canadians, and is asking members to invite friends to experience the power of exercise on mental health. To honor Bell Let’s Talk Day, FIC looks at the science and data supporting the essential role the fitness industry can play in improving mental health in Canada.


Exercise and Depression

While exercise cannot replace medication for many mental health struggles, a major systematic review in the British Medical Journal in 2023, covering over 97 reviews, with over 120,000 participants in trials, found that physical activity has a profound effect on symptoms of depression, stress and anxiety, concluding:


Physical activity is highly beneficial for improving symptoms of depression, anxiety, and distress across a wide range of adult populations, including the general population, people with diagnosed mental health disorders and people with chronic disease. Physical activity should be a mainstay approach in the management of depression, anxiety and psychological distress.” – British Medical Journal


Exercise and Mood Disorders

When we engage in physical activity, our bodies release neurochemicals that positively affect our mood and cognitive function. Often referred to as the magic DOSE chemicals – Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin and Endorphins – one of the key players in elevating our mood and reducing stress is dopamine, the “feel-good” neurotransmitter.


A study published in the journal “Psychosomatic Medicine” (Craft and Perna, 2004) found that regular physical activity can reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety by increasing the availability of neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine, which help regulate mood. Additionally, exercise has been shown to stimulate the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and maintenance of neurons. Higher BDNF levels are associated with improved cognitive function and a lower risk of depression.


Regular aerobic exercise has been linked to a significant reduction in anxiety symptoms. Interestingly, when we load our body with stress during exercise, we activate the fight or flight response, which over time helps our nervous system learn to manage stress. We can build resilience through exercise.


Exercise and Stress         

Canadians are stressed, and according to Statistics Canada, one in five Canadians report living with high levels of stress. Stress can have a detrimental effect on our health and our mental well-being. A meta-analysis published in the journal Health Psychology found that individuals who exercise regularly report significantly lower levels of perceived stress compared to those who were less active. Consistent exercise also improves sleep, which can lead to better stress management as well. usness.


Exercise Fights Feelings of Loneliness

When we join a fitness community – whether in a gym, community centre, sports team or group exercise class, we are immediately fighting feelings of isolation and loneliness. A study published in 2015 in PLOS highlighted the importance of social interaction in exercise, and showed improved athletic performance.


The research found that individuals who exercised in a group setting reported higher levels of enjoyment and lower levels of stress compared to those who exercised alone. This underscores the role of exercise not only as a physical activity but also as a means of building social connections and support networks.


Exercise is one of the most effective treatments for both the prevention of mental health disorders and mental health management. In fact, the Canadian College of Physicians recommends physicians conduct counseling on physical activity to improve both physical and mental health saying:


“Given that family physicians are a preferred source of health information and the most common treatment provider for mental health complaints, the increased integration of physical activity counseling into primary care could serve to promote both physical and mental well-being. Counseling on physical activity is relevant for most patients, as more than half of Canadians are not sufficiently active to achieve physical or mental health benefits.”


On this Bell Let’s Talk Day, Fitness Industry Council of Canada applauds the fitness industry for the powerful impact they have on the mental health of Canadians.

Fitness Industry Council of Canada submitted a budget proposal to the federal government to revise line 33099 of the federal income tax form, allowing gym memberships to be included as a medical expense. To get involved with the efforts, please join the FIC today.

Fitness Industry Council of Canada (FIC) is the not-for profit trade association that represents the voice of fitness facility operators across Canada. Representing more than 6,000 facilities with more than six-million members nationwide, FIC pursues a legislative agenda in the hope of bettering the fitness industry for both consumers and operators. FIC aims to work with both industry and government to improve the health and physical activity levels of Canadians.

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