This is a Guest Blog written by our Partners at Sparta Science.
Members of the Special Operations Forces (SOF) community are not strangers to physical injuries or ailments; the requirements of the SOF life can take a toll on mental health, too. Studies have shown that exposure to combat stress can lead to declines in areas that are critical for military readiness, including reaction time, sustained attention, and impulse control. When it comes to operational success, these declines can be detrimental. That is why it is important to make sure our warfighters are both physically and mentally solid. Most people know that physical movement can rehabilitate the body, but it can also improve mental state.
Most often, when people think about exercise or movement, they think about benefiting their muscles and physical body structures. In reality, we should view muscles and structures as hardware while the real value is the software, which in the body is controlled by the brain and hormones. For every physical movement, there is a chemical response that goes along with it. So when you move and are active, no matter what the movement is, the real value is the hormonal response.
Different kinds of exercise and levels of intensity can still impact the body and your hormone system in positive ways. Generally, the tail ends of the intensity spectrum have the most value in this arena. Walking, a low-intensity activity, is a good way to boost endorphins and improve your mental state. In fact, a study review by Kings College London found that exercising for just twenty minutes a day can reduce your risk of depression by a third. High-intensity activities like lifting weights or sprinting will release hormones that make you feel better, like testosterone, for example.
Working for the “Mood Boost”
The most common example of mood-boost after exercise people recognize is the “runner’s high.” Endorphins are actually naturally occurring opioids. They’re natural painkillers in the same family as morphine and oxycodone released by your body, naturally, oftentimes triggered by something as simple as extra steps. Exercise, like running or walking, also increases levels of endocannabinoids in your bloodstream. Endocannabinoids sounds like what it is, a similar biomechanical substance to cannabis that is naturally produced in your body. Endocannabinoids are shown to promote short-term psychoactive effects like a reduction in anxiety and a feeling of calmness.
The cognitive benefits don’t stop when you have finished exercising. Through a process called neurogenesis, the process of new neurons forming in the brain, overall brain performance improves, and cognitive decline is prevented. Furthermore, the hippocampus, which is associated with memory and learning, has also been found to increase in volume of people who regularly exercise. With this increase comes many benefits including, improved working memory and focus, elevated mood, and ability to better switch between tasks. These benefits can have a huge impact on the increased readiness of SOF while in training or on deployment.
Granted, intensity is relative to each individual, and what triggers these hormone responses in everyday civilians would differ drastically from the level of exercise it takes to be released in a special forces operative. But creating and deepening these pathways for positive hormones to be released more easily and effectively is important to maintaining a healthy mental state. Consistent exercise and release of these hormones prepare and train your body to release them. Just like consistent exercise makes your muscles stronger, it strengthens these necessary pathways as well.
Micro-exercise has been described as any physical activity or a short workout that takes between 3 and 10 minutes to complete. Research shows that even just an 11-minute workout that contains one minute of high-intensity, all-out effort is just as effective as a 45-minute-long workout at a moderate pace. To improve your mental clarity and mission readiness, try to incorporate one of these three things every day:
- A short, brisk walk or jog
- Quick morning lift
- Pushups and jumping jacks