You know it is important to move your body and get your heart rate up a few times a week, but what does exercise do for your brain? Both the American Heart Association and The American Diabetes Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week, which is about 30 minutes five days a week. We usually think of this as something to keep us fit and healthy, but it also keeps your brain healthy and sharp.
As it turns out, your brain depends on regular physical activity just as much as the rest of your body. It feeds off of the extra oxygen and blood circulation from raising your heart rate the same as every other cell in your body. Our last post was about medical conditions that exercise helps, but have a look at the post to discover 20 ways exercise nourishes your brain.
20 Ways Exercise Benefits The Brain
The more we age, the more tender loving care the brain needs to stay on the ball. It’s common for people to think it’s just the aging process that seems to wear the brain down as time goes on. Almost everyone is under the illusion that memory and brain function has to decrease with age, but that’s not really true.
There are many ways to keep the brain healthy as we age without losing any function. There are brain-healthy foods that are high in antioxidants and other substances that keep the brain healthy. But the fact is, physical activity is one of the best ways to keep your brain healthy. Here’s what it does for your brain:
1. Promotes Healthy Eating Habits
Your brain thrives on healthy nutrition the same as the rest of your body, and anybody into regular exercise for any length of time naturally tends to eat healthy foods. Part of the reason for that is because routine physical activity for the pupose of maintaining weight or fitness causes one to consider diet as part of the process.
You can choose to eat junk food to provide the needed calories for everyday energy and thought, or you can choose healthy foods. You’ll find, however, that eating healthy foods makes clear and focused thinking much easier than a diet of junk foods. Eating healthy keeps your brain healthy by providing adequate nutrients the same as it does to the rest of your body and organs.
There is no law that says that we must choose to eat healthy, and most people don’t. It’s ultimately up to the individual to recognize that the best way to feed an active body is to eat healthy foods. This provides adequate nutrition for your brain to function on a day-to-day basis.
2. Increases Productivity
Exercising stimulates brain cells involved in personal productivity. It may seem that an hour for a workout takes you away from more important task, but, in the end, that hour increases productivity. The thirty minutes to an hour spent in a gym or on your own treadmill recharges brain cells that will keep you productive at work.
The brain is essentially a muscle that needs to be used the same as any other muscle of the body. Instead of producing physical strength, you will enhance mental strength so that mental ability stays alert all day. So, while the time spent does temporarily decrease productivity, you are more productive during the rest of the day.
3. Prevents Sitting Disease
Sitting disease is real and is essentially the same thing as living a sedentary lifestyle. Millions of Americans suffer from “sitting disease” because they don’t get any physical activity at all. It’s easy to spend all your time sitting at a desk, playing on the computer, doing paperwork, reading, or watching television. But the fact is, sitting for long periods of time leads to all sorts of health problems.
“Sitting disease” essentially causes a number of secondary health problems. They include obesity, heart disease, strokes, diabetes, and peripheral vascular disease. The more we are sedentary, the less our metabolic rate is and the more chances we have to develop
the diseases listed above.
Regular exercise prevents the complications of sitting, especially if you sit at a desk at work. All it takes is the ability to get off the couch or chair and moving your body. Both brain and body thrive on the benefits.
4. Boosts Creativity
You will have a chance to think about things without the interference of our day-to-day activities that you’ve missed before. You have a chance to let down your mental guard that your creative juices can come up and to the forefront. Many people have their best ideas while running, walking, swimming, etc.
This prolonged movement also enhances the blood flow to the brain, which, in turn, boosts creativity and deep thinking ability. When all of the brain’s structures receive a great deal of circulation, it is turned on to new ideas and new ways of doing things that just don’t come up normally.
The only way we can get extra oxygen to the brain is to increase the circulation. The only way we can increase the circulation to the brain is with some sort of cardio activity that increases heart rate and blood flow. With exercising, we use the brain as a whole, which increases creativity and helps us think better.
5. Boosts Concentration and Focus
Most people don’t exercise without increasing focus. We use our brain to concentrate on what we are doing and to focus on putting one foot in front of the other (in walking or running) or put one hand over the other (in swimming). These things temporarily enhance concentration and focus, which leads to overall increased focus.
Concentration and focus are increased even after we have finished. For hours afterward, the brain has increased blood flow to its tissues and this enhances our ability to think, concentrate, and focus. Getting into a habit of thirty minutes a day can provide us with an entire day’s worth of enhanced concentration and focus.
6.. Increases Cognitive Flexibility
What is cognitive flexibility? Cognitive flexibility is the mental ability to think about and switch between thinking about more than one thing at the same time and to think about many different concepts simultaneously. Exercising can help improve this essential brain function.
It increases the blood flow to the brain, which in turn allows the brain to be able to multitask better. We turn on more parts of the brain so that we can thin about multiple things at the same time. We essentially turn on more neurons so that we can allow ourselves to use the brain to the best of its abilities—being more flexible to think about and process many different brain processes.
7. Sharpens Short Term Memory
Both long and short-term memory depends on the adequate functioning of the hippocampus. When you increase heart rate, you improve the blood flow to the hippocampus so that we have a better short-term memory. This allows us to remember numbers better and helps us retain short-term memories that can later be turned into long-term memories.
There have been numerous medical condition studies on the effect of exercise on short-term memory. They all prove that you can better remember lists of items and the steps of a task better than when you try to do the same things as sedentary beings. There seems to be something found in physical movement that improves the functionality of the hippocampus so that short-term memory is enhanced.
It may simply be that the hippocampus is better oxygenated, which helps short-term memory. It may also be that the brain’s neurotransmitters work better. Either way, the end result is better short-term memory and the Improvement in the ability to turn short-term memory into long-term memory.
8.. Promotes Long Term Memory Health
As mentioned, both long-term memory and short-term memory seem to be enhanced by something as simple as a daily walk which is also good for arthritis. It all goes back to its effect on the hippocampus, which is the brain structure that turns short-term memory into long-term memory.
Physical activity enhances the blood flow to the hippocampus and improves the flow of neurotransmitters in the hippocampus so that we are better able to take pieces of short term memory and turn them into long-term memory. During this process, the memories are taken from temporary storage and are moved to parts of the brain that store longterm memory. Exercise enhances this process so that our long-term memory health is improved.
9. Makes You Think Faster
Making use of your body increases the oxygenation to the brain by increasing the blood flow to the brain. When the brain has a lot of blood flow and oxygen, you can think faster. Things that you stumble on or forget are better brought to the forefront so that your thinking processes work better.
Have you heard the phrase “think fast on your feet”? This isn’t just a phrase but is based on the fact that you truly do think faster on your feet. This utilization of your body is one way of being able to process facts in the brain faster through an enhancement of the cognitive processes in the brain. The brain needs the added circulation brought on by exercise in order to think its fastest and process material with efficiency.
10. Improves Your Executive Functions
The executive functions of the brain are a collection of cognitive (thinking) processes –including inhibitory control, attentional control, cognitive flexibility, and working memory, as well as problem-solving, reasoning, and planning. These things are essential
for the cognitive control of our behavior. They involve the selection and adequate monitoring behaviors that aid in the attainment of specific goals.
Your executive functions are helped when you exercise. No one knows exactly how the executive functions of the brain are enhanced? It may have something to do with improving blood flow and oxygenation to the brain. It may also have something to do with improving the transport of neurotransmitters between synapses so that we think faster and use our executive functions to the best of our ability.
11. Promotes Willpower
Let’s face it. It takes willpower to get through a strenuous workout. Most people don’t just lazily go through it, stopping when it seems too difficult to continue. A good workout routine causes us to use our willpower to get past the ‘wall” that tries to
interfere with the attainment of the goal.
This enhancement of willpower carries forth in the rest of our daily lives. We can use this enhanced willpower to get through other difficult tasks of the day. Physical activity teaches us that we have willpower and we use that willpower in other parts of our lives to get other tasks done more quickly and with better efficiency.
12. Improves Your Mood
There have been many studies showing an increase in mood during exercise. If we like what we are doing, we have a better mood and a better sense of well-being. It also may be due to the way activating muscles repetitively affects the neurotransmitters of the brain.
Neurotransmitters directly related to moods, such as norepinephrine and serotonin are naturally increased with this body movement. Endorphins are released as well. Endorphins are the “feel-good” neurotransmitters that allow us to feel better and to experience pain to a lesser degree. It is well known and documented that running, walking, or building muscles is associated with improved moods.
13. Boosts Self-Esteem
Exercise allows us to do things that we don’t think we can do. Whenever we reach a milestone in our routine that we thought we couldn’t overcome, we feel a better sense of self-esteem. In a very real way, these accomplishments help us feel better about ourselves and we see that this can carry through in other aspects of our lives.
It also causes a release of endorphins, which automatically increase our self-esteem and sense of well-being. Endorphins are neurochemicals released in various parts of the brain and affect those receptors in the brain that are associated with euphoria and better self-esteem. When we achieve our physical goals, we are better able to see ourselves as competent and worthy.
14. Boosts Happiness
People who regularly exercise score better on objective and subjective measures of happiness. It probably has to do with these same increased endorphins that help us feel better about ourselves. The increased endorphins help improve our mood and lend a helping hand to those parts of the brain that cause sadness. This turns sad feelings into much happier ones.
When we practice these activities with others, this sense of happiness is even more enhanced. Exercising with a buddy improves friendships and relationships. When we have solid relationships, we tend to be happier. This is why many experts recommend that we train with another person who can help us get over the hard parts and motivate us. As relationships grow and develop, we feel automatically happier.
15. Increases Resilience To Stress
This is perhaps the best stress reliever to be found. Multiple research studies point toward aerobic exercising as a potent stress-reliever. Even anaerobic workouts (weight lifting, for example) can improve our stress levels. While lifting weights or do
aerobics, we release neurochemicals that help balance the stress in our lives.
There are some types of exercise that reduce stress better than others do. Routines like tai chi, yoga, and qi gong are ancient Asian forms that have been scientifically proven to reduce the amount of stress in our lives. This isn’t to say, however, that you
can’t get adequate stress reduction from other activities. Anything you can do will help decrease stress and will make you more resilient to the stresses of everyday living.
16. Slows Brain Atrophy
The brain naturally atrophies with disuse and age so we need to do things to counteract this natural process. Research has shown that people who get regular exercise have healthier brains that are less atrophic than people who do not.
Exactly how it impacts brain atrophy isn’t completely clear. It may have to do with improving the blood supply to the brain or to increase the number and type of synapses in the brain. Brain cells may live longer under conditions of improved oxygenation so that there is less atrophy in the brain. Brain cells may be able to age more gracefully when we exercise so, as age approaches, we have a lesser degree of age-related atrophy.
17. Promotes The Birth Of New Brain Cells
Some people believe that we are born with all of the brain cells we are ever going to have yet this isn’t true. Exercise has been shown to increase the number of brain cells and the number of synapses connected between cells of the brain. By increasing brain cell number, our “brain power” increases and it simply makes us smarter.
Think of exercising building new brain cells as similar to increasing muscle mass. Our bodies know when to create new cells during exercise. Just as muscle cells are created in the process, so are brain cells. The added brain cells make
synapses with other brain cells inside the brain so that we think faster and have better memories.
18. Lowers Risk of Dementia and Alzheimer’s disease
Study after study has shown us that people who exercise have a decreased chance of developing Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia-related to getting older. Exactly how or why this happens this isn’t yet clear. It may have something to do with increasing brain cells or to increase the circulation in the brain so that fewer brain cells die.
For whatever reason, the relationship between exercise and dementia prevention is well established. If you want to avoid any age-related dementia such as Alzheimer’s disease, you need to include regular physical exertion in your life. Do it while you’re young and you’ll have a better benefit but if that time of your life has passed, it is perfectly okay to start now.
19. improves Cognitive Performance
Cognitive performance is a fancy way of defining your thinking processes. Thinking involves memory, thoughts, and related brain activities that work together to make us smarter. Pronounced and focused physical activity can enhance these skills so that you perform better on tests that measure cognition.
This advantage seems to last past the point in time when the session is over. This means that you don’t only have enhanced cognitive performance while exercising. But for hours afterward, the brain’s circulation is enhanced and the neurotransmitters are
increased so that you can think better and perform better on tests of cognitive performance.
The next time you have a test to take or a task to do that requires a lot of thinking, instead of trying to cram information into your head, take the time instead to exercise for a half-hour. You’ll find that all of your cognitive processes are enhanced and that you have better-thinking skills that weren’t than before.
20. Fights and Prevents Depression
Exercise increases the level of neurotransmitters in the brain that actively fight off depression and improve mood. This includes endorphins, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Low levels of these neurotransmitters are what is behind the development of depression
in the first place.
If you are already depressed, any physical thing can help fight that depression. Research has shown that depressed people who do anything physical have an improvement in their depression even if they don’t undergo psychotherapy or take antidepressants. Taking up something like running can fight depression. It can affect the neurotransmitters of the brain so that depression can be lifted just by using your muscles.
As you can see, there are many benefits to the brain that occur with exercising and has a positive effect on functioning. It increases the endorphins in the brain and body so that we naturally have a better mood and greater self-esteem. Improving circulation to the brain so that we can have better cognitive processes and improved memory is vital to good health.
Exercise also increases the levels of neurotransmitters responsible for the resolution and prevention of depression and anxiety. Exercising half an hour a day for 5 days a week does incredible things for your brain along with increasing your fitness level.