Exercise is good for the body; we all know that. It helps us keep fit, assists in maintaining a healthy weight and keeps organs working efficiently. But does exercise affect our brain as well? Profoundly, it would seem! Exercise elevates the mood, lowers stress and has many beneficial impacts on the brain besides.
When we exercise, our heart beats faster and blood circulation increases. This helps to enhance the blood flow to and the functioning of the different organs of the body, including the brain. Quite simply, improved blood flow enhances functioning. Beyond this, there are some actual changes that occur in the brain because of exercise. Here’s what happens and why it’s all good for you:
Exercise and the ‘happy’ hormones
The chemical, dopamine is thought to play a significant role in the way that we feel. It is the a neurotransmitter seen to be associated with emotions such as happiness and pleasure. Other neurotransmitters such as noradrenalin and serotonin, and the neuro-hormone endorphin are produced by the body during exercise. The production of these chemicals is seen to improve the mood and make the person feel a general sense of wellbeing and happiness. So when they say exercise has its own reward, this is literally true. Exercise is seen to have an impact on the brain similar to feelings engendered by winning a lottery or falling in love, according to some researchers.
There is that sense of euphoria that comes from exercising, often referred to as ‘runner’s high’. When exercising helps to create an elevated state of mind, many athletes come to crave the activity that produces that euphoric feeling. This explains why some people seem to be almost addicted to their workout and will not miss it for anything.
According to some experts, athletes such as marathon runners not only experience that feeling of euphoria, but may also feel less discomfort and physical pain. This phenomenon is particularly marked among athletes such as runners because of the sense of exultation that may come in the wake of crossing that finish line. Many runners say that there is no feeling quite like the emotional high of crossing that line to the sound of crowds cheering! Some runners even tend to lose sense of time and may start to feel invincible in some cases. This makes it possible for some athletes to push themselves beyond what we may think of as the limits of endurance, to take their performance to the next level.
Lower levels of depression
Studies show that people who exercise regularly are less likely to be depressed or suffer from anxiety-related disorders. The fact that exercise lowers stress is well documented by studies and by anecdotal evidence. It also helps us sleep better, enhancing duration and quality of sleep. Improved stress levels and better sleep quality have obviously positive impacts on the wellbeing of the mind and body.
In addition, the rhythmic motion of the body and its limbs tends to trigger the body’s relaxation response, which in turn helps trigger feelings of psychological wellbeing. One doesn’t have to be an elite athlete or someone constantly looking to improve their physical performance. Any activity that produces this rhythmic motion within the body, such as cycling, swimming or jogging could produce these feelings of wellbeing and help to lower risk of depression and anxiety.
Improved attention span
Some experts also say that regular exercise serves to improve our notoriously short attention spans. As we exercise, the rhythmic motions of the body tend to engage the brain and help us focus on the physical activity of the body. The brain’s prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the ability to shift or maintain attention is said to be benefitted by aerobic exercise. Studies have been able to demonstrate improved attention spans among people who exercise regularly over the longer term.
Enhanced memory and cognitive skills
Researchers have found that the size of the hippocampus in the brain can increase with the help of activities that increase the heart rate and which get the sweat glands working. The hippocampus is associated with learning and memory and is seen to benefit from aerobic exercise.
The benefits are both direct and indirect: since exercise helps to reduce inflammation in the body, reduces insulin resistance and physically improves brain cell health, there is a direct, positive impact on the physical health and wellbeing of the brain. Studies have found that regular exercisers have better developed medial temporal cortexes and prefrontal cortexes when compared with those who don’t exercise. Plus exercise reduces stress, and enhances sleep quality which indirectly improves brain function.
Slowing cognitive impairment
Cognitive impairment is the degeneration of the brain and memory that is almost an inevitable part of growing old. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that regular exercise helps keep people alert and mentally agile for longer. There is evidence to show that the synapses (neural connections in the brain) increase as a result of exercise, which in turn help to enhance memory and learning.
The mental wear and tear that could lead to dementia and diseases such as Alzheimer’s could be delayed if not prevented through regular exercise. Starting to exercise early in life is seen to have beneficial impacts later in life: memory loss is prevented and mental decline slows down. In addition, physical coordination and balance remains efficient for longer, so the risk of falls and accidents is also lower.
Other ways exercise benefits our brains
Apart from the above benefits, exercise also helps to boost self confidence. It isn’t just that by exercising you’re fitter and feel that your physical appeal has increased. Exercising regularly and interacting with others also helps improve one’s social skills, making one more socially adept and self confident.
There is also some evidence to suggest that regular exercise helps to enhance creativity. Researchers observed that the hippocampus – which is important for imagination and creativity – is activated by exercise.
Looking at the many, many physical and mental benefits that exercise brings – some of which researchers don’t even understand fully yet – isn’t it time you got off that couch and into some regular physical activity