NEUROLOGICAL BENEFITS OF EXERCISE
Exercise can change your brain on the cellular level. The chemical makeup, it’s organizational structure, it’s volume. The physical changes exercise has on your body can easily be seen in a mirror, the changes your brain go through are have been more of a mystery. Recent technology and research are now uncovering some of those mysteries.
EXERCISE INCREASES YOUR RESILIENCE TO STRESS
Exercise is a great way to beat stress. I don’t want to beat that into the ground, those are pretty well known. But can the benefit stretch beyond just relieving stress? Recent research out of Princeton took a look at some of the less understood mechanisms of stress relief to tackle that question.
These scientists ran an experiment on mice that exercised and those that didn’t. What they saw was that exercise actually reorganizes the structure of the brain to react differently to a stressful situation. The second finding was noticing that the brain increased the release of a specific neurotransmitter when a stressful situation was encountered. The role of this neurotransmitter was to reduce the excitability – or firing – of neurons.
What’s the significance? It means that exercise helped reduce the level of anxiety when exposed to stress. A neuro-level coping mechanism used by the brain. Those who exercise are better able to deal with stressful situations in their day to day lives. The result is better health, better decisions, and more control throughout the day.
The research also has implications for treating those with anxiety disorders.
INCREASES ENERGY AND REDUCES FATIGUE
I think we all feel a dip in physical and mental energy at different times of day. So what’s the best way to grab a second wind? It may actually be by getting your body moving.
It’s logical to think that exercise can leave you exhausted and drained. A study from the University of Georgia, however, looked at the effect of light to moderate exercise on energy levels. They found that low or medium impact activity could actually increase energy levels and reduce fatigue. This benefit was seen for sedentary adults that were considered healthy. Even more surprising, this was independent of current fitness levels of the individual.
Some of these energized feelings could be because of the dopamine and seratonin that get released in the brain. The lead author of the study suggested that this research that exercise may have a more direct effect on the central nervous system. A similar study at the University of South Carolina actually backs up this claim. At South Carolina they found that exercise actually ramps up the creation of new mitochondrial cells in the brain, which can help guard against mental fatigue.
EXERCISE MAKES YOUR BRAIN BIGGER
You might be amazed to learn that exercise literally makes your brain bigger!
Healthy but sedentary adults were used in a study to look at this effect of exercise. When put through an aerobic fitness program for 6 months, the researchers saw a significant increase in both white matter and grey matter in the brain. The control group, which only did stretching and toning over the same period of time, saw no increase in the volume of their brain.
SLOWS DOWN BRAIN ATROPHY
Starting around age 30 our brains start to lose volume naturally. Most notably in the hippocampus. This can affect cognitive abilities, memory, and even spur the onset of dementia.
Research found that moderate exercise in healthy older adults helped them gain 1-2% volume in the hippocampus area. This would be the equivalent of reversing brain aging by about 2 years. Additionally, the researchers found that there were gains in spatial memory for this study.
Another study in 2013 saw a correlation between exercise habits and brain volume. Participants were adults between the ages of 18 to 45. After the scientists adjusted for factors such as age, gender, and brain volume they compared the results against each persons exercise habits. They found that the minutes of exercise per week correlated with the size of their hippocampus. The research shows that regular exercise may be able to protect against the brain’s natural shrinkage.
INCREASES THE BIRTH OF NEW BRAIN CELLS
The process of growing new brain cells is called neurogenesis. Scientists recently identified a brain chemical called BDNF – that’s Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor for any science nerds – that promotes this process in our brains.
While the first studies were done in rats, researchers are beginning to look at the relationship between exercise and BDNF in human subjects. A review published in 2014, looked at 32 articles and tallied up the results. Overall, they saw short intense and chronic exercise elevated BDNF levels in humans.
This same studied also noted that results for exercise were different than normal physical activity. So taking a walk around the block may not generate increased BDNF to your brain. Future research should be able to tell us how intense activities need to be for increased BDNF.
EXERCISE IMPROVES SELF-ESTEEM
Self esteem is important if we want to live a happy life. Low self esteem creates stress, depression, and anxiety. Also, it can negatively impact our job and academic performance. If gone unchecked it can also cause a number of other unhealthy behaviors.
Exercise has been shown to affect self-esteem positively in all ages. From your development as a child up until the twilight years. A large quantitative review of 113 studies reported finding a change in self-esteem through exercise. In fact, the more physically fit one was, the higher one’s self esteem. One final result they reported was that the type of exercise program could also affect the level of self-esteem.
So if you’re looking to boost your self-esteem, go hit that pavement, pool, or treadmill.
MORE THAN JUST NEUROLOGICAL
The benefits of exercise stretch far beyond that of the neurological. You can find an overview of all the benefits by checking out this article. And let others know! If you find the information helpful, share it with your friends or family.
Image Credit: Jason Jones