There’s a lot of information regarding the benefits of exercise on the body, of course on weight loss, adipose (fat) tissue, lean muscle mass, metabolism, even on long-term health and preventing disease. What’s not often emphasized is the affect exercise has on another very important aspect of the human body. The brain.
If you’re like the rest of us (myself included) we know some general, albeit great, ideas having to do with this, such as, exercise increases endorphins and helps you feel happier. Yet, we don’t spend a lot of time focusing on these benefits when we’re deciding whether or not to lift a weight, take a stroll, or stay on the couch! It’s not a matter of whether or not we know there are benefits to exercise; I can’t imagine there’s a single person out there that would refute that statement. (If so, you probably shouldn’t tell anyone, you’ll just look silly.) It’s usually a matter of finding some form of motivation, a “what’s in it for me” that’s big enough to get you moving.
Many of us may be motivated by what those crunches do for our abs, the fact that we can gradually lift more weight and increase our strength, or the fact that the Doctor has recently told you to lose some weight or you’ll be sorry; but some just don’t seem to find the benefit that enticing, they can’t grab themselves by the proverbial horns and get moving…so it might be nice to look at exercise from a little different benefit angle. Let’s put losing pounds and stepping on a scale, the way our clothes fit and changing sizes out of the picture for a little bit. What if you could ‘train your brain’ to work better for you?
Research has been showing for quite some time that exercise releases chemicals and can help make us feel ‘happier,’ a fact that many of us may already know or talk about. But what does that really mean for you? Simply put, depression and “down” moods are related to low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain. Exercise has been shown to increase the concentration of these neurotransmitters by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. More of this means good news for happiness. But it gets better.
For a while Scientists thought that humans were born with a certain number of brain cells and that was it. I guess we'd all come away hoping we got the long end of the stick on that one! But, they now know better (lucky us!) They found that new neurons were popping up mainly in an area of the brain called the Hippocampus (the center of learning and memory). So how’d they get there? Many studies have revealed that exercise jump-starts the creation of new cells, a process called neurogenesis. After a few weeks of exercise, animals were generally showing about twice as many new neurons as their sedentary counterparts. Their brains, like other muscles, were bulking up. They have actually found that exercise is one of only a few ways to generate new neurons! That’s pretty exciting in itself.
There is something called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor going on (but that’s awfully intense so we’re going to call it BDNF.) BDNF is basically a protein secreted to develop these new cells in the brain. (Part of the process just mentioned in the paragraph prior that occurs with exercise.) This creation of new neurons has an exciting working relationship with Serotonin (which we also discovered is increased with exercise). What’s the connection? Exercise has been shown to increase the secretion of BDNF, helping create new cells in the brain. And as we just learned, exercise has been shown to increase serotonin and norepinephrine as well which are linked to increased feelings of euphoria. So, to make sure we’re on the same page let's connect- exercise increases secretion of BDNF, serotonin and norepinephrine- boosting brain cells and happiness. The best part is, they have a reciprocal relationship, meaning the increase in one also increases the secretion of the others, thus making a loop of production and reinforcing the significant potential of exercise as a mood and brain-enhancer. And there’s still more reason to give your brain exercise!
Did you know the human brain starts to lose nerve tissue beginning around the age of 30? Don’t worry, we’re not all doomed. There’s also good news regarding this fact…That BDNF production I mentioned previously plays a part here as well. It has both a creative and reparative effect for neurons: it helps create new neurons as we mentioned (necessary because apparently we are losing them!) and repair and protect existing ones. Aerobic exercise reinforces connections between neurons, creating a denser network, which is then better able to take in, process and store information. Picture your brain like this: 100 needles in a haystack trying to find each other, and then your brain on exercise: imagine 10,000 needles (because we created some new ones) with a tiny magnet attached (because now we’ve made a better connection) communicating with each other. Which would you prefer?! (This does suggest possible preventative and therapeutic effects for diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's that progress via the loss of neurons- many studies are conducted on this very relationship. Very interesting, feel free to get into that on your own.)
In case making new brain cells and increasing your happiness aren’t enough reason to get up and get moving, here’s another. Because of the increase in BDNF from exercise, the area of our brain that is involved in learning is activated. Put this to work and this is what was found: Researchers took 2 groups of people and put them through a brain-taxing test. One of those groups then rode a stationary bike for 30-minutes while the other group chilled out. (Already wish you were in the ‘chilled out’ group? Wait just a minute…) They then had both groups retake the same test, the group that exercised in between performed significantly better on the second test. This is not a stand-alone instance, in fact there have been repeated studies of a similar nature that show the same results. Adults and children who exercise tend to display sharper memory skills, higher concentration levels, more fluid thinking and reasoning and greater problem-solving than those who stay sedentary. Not to mention, they have a lower chance of battling depression and negative moods.
Sharper, smarter, happier, and having more brain cells…Are you in?!
(Look out for the next article, bringing you some TIPS and techniques to help get your brain on…exercise!)
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