Maybe you already exercise to trim your tummy, keep your weight in check, or ward off the major killers. Good for you! But did you know that moving your body is also about the best thing you can do for your brain? While the benefits of a workout have been well-known for below-the-neck for a long time, the incredible advantages for your brain are just being discovered.
Research is showing that physical exercise improves mood, memory, attention, creativity, and learning and reduces depression, age-related decline, and the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s.
The Alzheimer’s Research Center is advocating exercise as one of the best weapons against the disease. Exercise protects your hippocampus, the part of your brain which governs memory and spatial navigation, the first things to go with Alzheimer’s. A recent Finnish study with twins showed exercise to reduce dementia risks even over genetics. Even babies of mothers who exercised during pregnancy are born with more mature brains. So much evidence is accumulating that physical exercise is the miracle potion for getting and keeping your brain healthy at any age.
How Much Exercise Is Enough?
The exact amount or intensity of the exercise required has yet to be determined, but it appears that the minimum is thankfully low and studies have shown that modest amounts of exercise yield positive results. In fact, even strength training can have lasting cognitive benefits. Research has confirmed that walking just 72 blocks (roughly 6 miles) a week can enhance brain function. In general, exercise improves the connectivity of brain circuits, increases gray matter (actual neurons), combats and reverses the brain shrinkage associated with aging, increases performance on cognitive tasks, and shields you from stress and depression.
How Exercise Boosts Your Brain
Moving your body increases the blood flow to your brain which elevates oxygen levels which triggers biochemical changes protecting the new resulting neurons by bathing them in nerve growth factor (BDNF). These conditions encourage your brain to grow and change by forming new neural pathways and synaptic connections, a process known as neuroplasticity.
Just like your muscles, your brain cells need to be stressed to grow and doing complicated activities requiring coordination and thought challenges them and enhances attention and concentration which is why activities requiring you to move and think at the same time, like tennis or ballroom dancing, provide the biggest brain boost. High school students who did 10 minutes of a complex fitness routine scored better on tests than students who did 10 minutes of random physical activity.
Exercise also reduces stress and anxiety by increasing soothing brain chemicals, like endorphins and GABA. Antibodies are elevated strengthening your immune system and endocannabinoids (yes, they’re like the active ingredient in cannabis) are released and play a role in pain sensation, mood, and memory. Exercise may even work on a cellular level to reverse stress’ toll in aging our bodies. Studies found that stressed-out women who exercised vigorously for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period had cells showing fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and inactive.
Research has also shown that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. This may be because exercise appears to stimulate the growth of neurons in brain regions damaged by depression.
One study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants’ levels of the brain chemical GABA, which typically translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety. (I’m a yogaholic!)
Exercise Healed My Damaged Brain
In 2007 when facing many stressful life events all at once, I tried to commit suicide by overdosing on pills resulting in a serious brain injury. While I did survive (obviously), I was left seriously cognitively impaired. In the years that followed, physical exercise was a huge part of my road to recovery. Once I learned how beneficial moving my body was for my brain, my life became all about encouraging neuroplasticity through exercise and putting it to work for me healing my brain. Self-directed neuroplasticity, guided by exercise and activity, was the key to my recovery.
For the first months after the injury, I went to the local Y, working out regularly on the elliptical machine, Stairmaster, or treadmill, and in aerobic classes. Well, I tried to participate in the group classes as best as I could. Because my timing and coordination were off, I couldn’t keep up with the class and looked goofy. However, by repeatedly challenging my brain and body to do the movements, I forced my brain to make new connections to master the exact things that were difficult for me. I’d sweated regularly my entire adult life motivated by vanity up until that point. Little did I know how well my ego would later serve me.
Upon continuing to learn more about how to better my brain, at 10 months post injury, I began doing cardiovascular activity every day, usually 45 minutes to an hour, but, no less than 30 minutes. Everyday. No excuses. I remember running in the pouring rain and all bundled up in the snow with only my eyes peeping out. When it came to working out, I had a compulsive drive because I desperately wanted to recover, because my brain was not functioning optimally so I was a little OCD, and because I’d tended to be that way my whole life.
While I’d aimed this laser beam focus on many things that weren’t to my benefit in the past, such as a man or having an immaculate house, my obsessiveness helped me tremendously in my rehabilitation efforts. I exercised almost every day for years. At a year post injury, I also added hot yoga to the mix but didn’t count it as exercise. It was my relaxation.
Thankfully, I recovered far beyond what the doctors predicted and enjoyed the added benefit of getting in the best shape of my life in my late forties. Still to this day, exercise and yoga are an important part of my life because I feel that they’re crucial to stay mentally and physically healthy, especially as I age and because I enjoy them and don’t feel right without them anymore.
If exercise helped heal my damaged brain, just think of what it can do for your brain. Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain. Get moving!