We all know how exercise helps your body, but what about your brain? Logic would say since your brain is a part of your body, exercise should help there too, and it does.
From a personal point of view, you know you feel better and sleep better when you exercise regularly. Are you also happier? More relaxed? In a better mood?
You read a lot about superfoods, packed with great things for your body, such as quinoa, kale, coconut oil, or salmon. But what is the best superfood for your brain? EXERCISE!!
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What Does Science Show?
Everyone has heard of the fight or flight response. You perceive some sort of threat and your body gets in a mode to help you run from it or fight it.
Your body sees exercise as the same thing – stress. Your heart beats faster, and your
brain reacts as if you are running from something or fighting it. It releases a protein known as BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor).
John Ratey, Ph.D. from Harvard Medical School says, “BDNF is like fertilizer for the brain. Without it, our brains can’t take in new information or make new cells.”
BDNF maintains, repairs, and regenerates nerve cells. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that facilitates learning and memory. It is one of the only parts of the brain that is capable of generating new cells.
Scientific studies have shown that new brain cells can be created with exercise, actually helping your brain grow! Who knew?
One study over a six-month period did brain scans on people who exercised three times per week, one hour each day. The size of the hippocampus increased, and they had better memory and concentration. Even after exercise, these new brain cells will survive while other brain benefits from exercise will go back to what they were previously.
When exercising, you breathe fast, getting more oxygen into your body. Your circulatory system pumps this oxygen throughout your entire body. Therefore, your brain gets a big shot of oxygen too.
Ever wonder why you are sleepy after a meal? That is because a lot of oxygen is diverted to your stomach to digest your meal, so your brain doesn’t get its fair share. Since the brain uses nearly 20% of the oxygen in your body, the oxygen boost you get during exercise really helps brain functions in many ways.
Along with that oxygen comes glucose, which is used for energy in your brain just like it is used in the rest of your body. So exercise is really brain superfood. It is nutrition for your mental well-being.
How is Your Mood Affected by Exercise?
At the same time that the BDNF is being generated, your body releases endorphins to help fight the stress it is feeling. Endorphins reduce your perception of pain, which is great if you are flighting or fighting. Responsible for what is known as “runner’s high”, endorphins give you a feeling of well-being.
They are a natural feel good drug. Sometimes thought of in the same way as alcohol and other drugs, endorphins are a mood enhancer. In fact, use of exercise and the effects produced by endorphins have been used to fight drug and alcohol addiction.
A study done at the University of Bristol found that “On exercise days, people’s mood significantly improved after exercising. Mood stayed about the same on days they didn’t, with the exception of people’s sense of calm which deteriorated.”
Serotonin is a powerful hormone released when exercising. It has been shown to be a mood elevator. This explains why many people seem to feel happy with regular exercise.
American College of Sports Medicine’s annual meeting) According to a recent study, exercise improves your outlook. This study reported a positive change in mood when using a stationary bike for 20 minutes, and the mood change lasted for 12 hours.
Exercise, as a habit, has also been shown to improve mood in people who do 25-60 minutes of aerobic exercise.
With just 30 minutes a day, several times each week, you too can get the mood benefit that comes with exercise.
In a study done at Penn State University, researchers found that “Those who had exercised during the preceding month but not on the day of testing generally did better on the memory test than those who had been sedentary, but did not perform nearly as well as those who had worked out that morning.
Research has shown that people with better cardio fitness levels have better memories and reaction times.
Learning, attention, and perception are affected by the hormones dopamine and norepinephrine. Since both of those hormones are released when you exercise, your memory gets a boost.
Studies done with seniors have shown that those who walked regularly had improved memory, reasoning, and processing.
While we generally associate memory loss with age, children can also mentally benefit from exercise. It has been shown that just 10 minutes of exercise can increase teenagers’ concentration and attention span. Some studies have even linked exercise with higher IQ levels.
“Cardiovascular health is more important than any other single factor in preserving and improving learning and memory,” says Thomas Crook, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and memory researcher. “You’re working out your brain at the same time as your heart.”
One study has shown that women did better on memory tests, as much as 20% better, after running on a treadmill than they did without exercise.
High-intensity exercise has even more mental benefits. After high-intensity workouts, one study has found that people learned 20% faster. Apparently this is because there is a large jump in BDNF and other hormones associated with high-intensity workouts.
Stressed? Anxiety? Depression?
In a paper presented at the Society of Neuroscience, a study done on rats showed that exercise helped them deal with stress. They became less anxious, and were able to more quickly recover from stress.
Several studies in those with anxiety and/or clinical depression have shown that symptoms are lessened with exercise. Psychiatrists often recommend exercise for patients who are suffering from depression and anxiety.
According to Simon Young, Editor of the Journal of Psychiatry and Neuroscience, when the serotonin is produced, depression symptoms are reduced. And exercise has even been shown to be as useful as prescription medicine in treating depression.
An Ounce of Prevention
We all fear the mental deterioration that comes with getting older. But major mental disorders, such as dementia and Alzheimer’s can be treated and even prevented. This prevention is believed to be due to increased BDNF production during exercise.
With BDNF, the combination of serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine is a powerful blend produced when you exercise. The benefits of exercise for your brain cannot be overstated.
It doesn’t take a lot of time to reap these benefits. Just 30 minutes 3-5 days per week will give you a big mental boost!