Your Brain on Exercise

When was the last time you walked out of the gym and said, “Hmm… I really wish I would’ve skipped that workout”? Probably never, right? Because while getting to the gym can sometimes take some serious self-talk, completing the deed always feels great afterward. You leave feeling happier, more energized, and focused on what’s ahead.

And here you thought all those sets and reps were just honing your fit body. Nope, exercise is just as good for your brain as it is for your biceps. Keep reading to learn a few ways that regular activity supports your lean, mean thinking machine.


Happy Meets Healthy
You know that great exercise “high” alluded to above? It’s a real thing. When you engage in exercise – anything from a low-intensity stroll with your dog to a vigorous workout – your brain releases endorphins. According to Medical News Today, endorphins are “chemicals produced naturally by the nervous system to cope with pain or stress.” Since exercise essentially stresses your body {picture burpees or interval training!} they’re released as you work out. Think of them as your body’s internal painkiller as they help reduce pain and boost pleasure, leaving you in a happier mood.

Meanwhile, there’s serotonin. Another mood-boosting neurotransmitter, serotonin is known as the “happy chemical” since it also makes you feel good. But while endorphins initially block pain to produce pleasure, serotonin is all about promoting pleasure itself. The more you exercise, the higher your brain serotonin levels become. In a paper published by the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, exercise was listed as one of the best ways to boost serotonin levels.1 It’s also why many anti-depressant medications work by driving more serotonin into the brain.

While exercise in and of itself isn’t a cure-all for depression or anxiety, it can reduce depressive symptoms and promote feelings of well-being. Best of all, it’s not just aerobic activity that has these mood-boosting effects. Resistance training – i.e., with your own body weight, bands, dumbbells, or machines – has also been shown to enhance mood and improve mental health.2 Whichever way you move, prepare yourself for the post-exercise positivity!


ALL ALERT NOW

When your body gets busy, so does your brain. As you exercise, neurons fire in unison, creating and intensifying brain waves. These brain waves lead you into a more alert state, improving your ability to focus and process information. Conversely, when you’re inactive, (such as idly watching TV, scrolling through your phone, or sleeping), your brain waves go into low-frequency mode.

According to research by Dr. John Ratey, exercise improves your brain in the short term by raising your focus for two to three hours afterward.3 So, if you have a big project to finish or an important presentation to deliver, you might want to squeeze in a workout first.

These positive effects have also been seen in students of all ages. Even just short bouts of exercise embedded into a student’s day can improve focus, retention, and test scores.4 At school, on the job, or wherever else you need some extra focus, exercise can be your edge.


CREATIVELY SPEAKING
Struggling to think outside of the box? Exercise can help. In a study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, a group of nearly 200 college students and adults was divided into two groups. One walked while taking a creativity test; the other was sedentary during the test. Guess which group performed best. You got it. The active group scored 81% higher.5

Another study published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience found that people who exercised four times per week were able to think more creatively in a series of tests than those who lived a more sedentary lifestyle.6 The magic appears to happen in a part of your brain called the “hippocampus.” During exercise, the hippocampus lights up with an electrical activity that helps fuel imagination and creativity. By enhancing the function of the hippocampus, exercise puts you into a more creative state of mind.

You might be thinking, “So what? I’m not a creative person so this doesn’t apply to me.” But according to British psychologist Dr. Michael Kirton, all of us are born creative in our own way. The key is just tapping into your uniqueness and unleashing your creative potential. A recent Forbes article entitled “Creativity Is For Everyone” supports this theory. While you may not be an artist, poet, or musician (society’s stereotypical “creative” type), you can still apply creativity to any profession or way of life. With exercise in your routine, you’ll find it easier to build this universal skill.


REMEMBER WHEN

It’s a fact: your memory declines as you age. It’s not that your brain gets flooded with too much information; it’s that it has a more difficult time storing it. According to a Johns Hopkins University neuroscientist, it gets tougher to remember things as you get older become the pathways leading to the hippocampus (where your memories are stored) degrade over the years.

There are many ways you can help slow this process, like eating right, doing regular brain puzzles, and, of course, exercising. Experts agree that regular exercise can help preserve your ability to think, reason, and remember. It can even lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s. 7

According to a study referenced in the New York Times, even a single workout can make your brain’s memory centers more fit and change how you recognize common names and similar information.8 Even better, the study notes how these short-term effects could accumulate to promote long-term improvements in how your brain recalls memories.

So how much exercise are we talking about? The Department of Health and Human Services recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week, or a combination of each. If you’re exercising five times per week, that equates to just 15 to 30 minutes per day. And don’t forget your weights. The Department also recommends strength training at least two times per week – although we’d suggest more. After all, the more muscle you have, the more fat you’ll burn at rest. And who doesn’t want that?


WRAPPING IT UP
Isn’t it great to know that your brain is constantly growing and that exercise can help “rewire” it to be fitter and healthier? Physical activity stresses your brain in a good way, helping it to function at its best. But the reverse is also true. When you ease into a life of inactivity, your brain suffers. The next time you’re debating going to the gym, remember this article. When that “maybe I’ll go” turns into a “yes, let’s do it!” you’ll be glad you went.

References Available Here.


About the Author
Nicole Kepic is a fitness & nutrition expert who specializes in health, wellness, and lifestyle writing. She has also had articles published in a variety of fitness and bodybuilding magazines. When she’s not busy writing for her clients, Nicole is either keeping active with her family or dreaming of her next sunny vacation.  www.nicolekepic.com

 

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