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The Science behind Exercise & Gratitude: and how they can make it a happy Blue Monday

Blue Monday is the name given to the third Monday of the year, which has been infamously crowned as the 'saddest day of the year'. While the jury is, and definitely still should be, out on the credibility of the science behind this claim, it still doesn't take away from the fact that this can be a pretty grim time of year, particularly when you're far enough North of the Equator.

The festivities of the holiday period have come and gone, finances has likely taken a hit in the process, the weather is grim and, to top it off, here in the Netherlands we still sit dormant in a relatively heavy lockdown.

No one can be blamed for feeling a bit glum on this particular Monday, so we have decided to dive into the science behind two of the most impactful things that you can do for your mental health.

Let's go.

1. Go for a run, or perform moderate-vigorous intensity exercise for at least 30 minutes

No surprises here, really. We're firm proponents of the power of exercise to transform not only our physical, but also our mental health.

The 30 minutes mark seems to be a bit of a sweet spot when it comes to optimal mental health benefits for exercise. Longer durations are great, of course, but at the 30 minute mark is when internal processes are really in motion.

When you exercise, a flood of important neurotransmitters are released into the brain. These neurotransmitters, or more popularly known as the 'happy hormones' include molecules like serotonin, dopamine and noradrenalin. Outcomes from the up-regulation of these molecules include:

Increased feelings of joy
Increased motivation
Increased energy levels

Just to name a few.

Furthermore, as we exercise, the blood flow within our brain is influenced. Additional blood flows to two important areas:

  • Prefrontal Cortex: which is involved with higher-order functions, decision-making, context-framing, and a lot of the aspects of our cognition that make us innately human

  • Temporal lobe: which is involved with, among other things - emotional processes and memory formation

Blood carries oxygen and nutrients around the body. Increased blood flow to an area means an increase in important resources, which allows that area to ramp up its output. Therefore, the increased blood flow to the Prefrontal cortex and Temporal lobes during and after exercise results in:

Increased concentration & focus
Improved memory recall
Improved memory storage

2. Perform an act of kindness for someone that prompts them to express gratitude towards you

An effective gratitude practice is one of the most neurologically powerful interventions that one can perform, which is likened in its effectiveness to exercise and some pharmacological methods.

You'd be forgiven for thinking that a gratitude practice is simply thinking positively about certain aspects of your life, or writing down several things that you are grateful for. These are modes of gratitude that are popular in society, but are not, neurologically speaking, the most effective ways of eliciting benefit.

It is more impactful to receive (sincere) gratitude for something that you've done, than to express gratitude towards someone else

But how does it work?

Well, the areas and molecules in the brain that are involved with gratitude are the similar to those involved in the happiness/reward/joy pathways.

For instance, the main molecule that is involved in gratitude is serotonin - the very same one that plays a key role in motivation, happiness, etc.. Also, one of the main areas that is involved with gratitude is the (medial) Prefrontal cortex.

Sound familiar?

They should - as we've already mentioned their involvement in the pathways stimulated by exercise.

As we mentioned above, the prefrontal cortex is convolved in framing the context of our lives; and ultimately, context is everything. It is the thing that allows us to voluntarily sit in an ice-cold bath because the perceived benefits of doing so shift our perception and tolerance.

I won't detail exactly what constitutes an effective gratitude practice here, but one well-supported aspect is that - receiving sincere gratitude for something that you have done has a powerful impact upon our (medial) prefrontal cortex.

Receiving gratitude actives the medial prefrontal cortex - which is responsible for providing context to life - and somewhat primes it for framing life in a positive way.

It changes the way we look at life.

We've all likely experienced this phenomenon before. You do something kind and helpful for somebody else, they thank you with sincerity, and you get an almost-instantaneous shot goodness all throughout your body.

So, with arguably selfish or self-serving intentions, go out there today and do something genuinely kind for someone else - maybe you take them out for coffee, or offer to help them with something that you know has been troubling them.

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