Time and time again we hear the ranting and raving of health professionals about all of the benefits of exercise. Claims have been made that exercise can help everything from your mood to your overall health to your sex drive. Exercise (among everything else) may also help brain function and cognitive development. How in the world can torturing yourself on a treadmill help your brain, you may ask? The research is incredible and the results just might entice you to start using that gym membership you bought two years ago and never used.
The creation of new neurons, or neurogenesis, is one thing that has been found to be jump started by exercise. While research is still ongoing, the theory is that the stress caused by exercise creates an influx of calcium which then activates the neurons in the hippocampus. From here the expression of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) genes is initiated, which then promotes neurogenesis. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that is central to learning and memory, and BDNF not only stimulates the creation of new neurons, but protects existing ones as well. As an added bonus, while BDNF protects the neurons, it repairs them as well. So what does all this scientific mumbo jumbo actually mean?
The human brain starts to lose nerve tissue as early as age 30; exercise increases the number of connections between the neurons which creates a thicker network for storing and processing information. What this truly means is that there really is a huge correlation between lifestyle Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In layman’s terms: the more you exercise, the more connections you create, the thicker the network becomes, the less likely you are to be subject to a disease that affects learning and memory.
Exercise Yourself Happy
While you may not think of it this way, your mood is controlled by your brain. The levels of certain neurotransmitters within the brain are what allow you to be happy or cause mood-related problems such as depression. Serotonin and norepinephrine are the two main neurotransmitters responsible for your mood. Depression is caused when these neurotransmitters hit dangerously low levels. When you exercise, the amounts of serotonin and norepinephrine are greatly increased because the sympathetic nervous system is given a jump start.
Not only can exercise help prevent the onset of depression; it can help you recover from it much more quickly. Your body releases endorphins when you exercise; you can think of these as the all-natural mood enhancer. Along with these endorphins, BDNF comes into play again. BDNF boosts the levels of serotonin in the brain, and exercise enhances BDNF; it’s one of the only vicious cycles that is great to be caught in.
When combined with antidepressants, exercise can speed up the recovery time for those suffering from depression. Studies on rats showed that antidepressants alone took about two weeks to have any effect on mood while antidepressants combined with exercise took just two days!
Thank Your Endorphins
Endorphins were already briefly mentioned, but they are responsible for so much of the good things that happen when you exercise, that they deserve a little bit more attention. You know that feeling that you get after you’ve gone for a swim or had a good run? That almost euphoric feeling that makes you feel as if you could do anything? Those are the endorphins kicking in from the workout you’ve just given your body.
Endorphins are a chemical released by the pituitary gland as a response to stress or even pain. Exercise does put mild stress on your brain and body (which is actually a good thing in this case), and we all know that working out can cause pain. As you exercise, the endorphins are released and begin binding to certain neurons. This blocks the release of neurotransmitters that are trying to send messages of pain to your brain. Within thirty minutes of beginning your workout, these endorphins get to work and begin minimizing the pain and discomfort that you feel while exercising.
Endorphins truly are like a natural drug; they allow the good stuff (serotonin and dopamine) to increase while keeping the bad stuff (pain) out. Research has even shown that endorphins attach themselves in the same way that drugs like morphine or heroin do; thereby providing that same euphoric feeling. Unfortunately, this feeling when derived from exercise is not nearly as addictive as the drugs that cause the same.
Theoretically it makes sense that people do not become addicted to exercise the same way that they do with drugs. In order to experience the euphoria that comes from a good workout, you have to endure a considerable amount of pain first. With drugs, the gratification is instant. For some, this may prove to be a catch 22, since the pain from exercise is doing your body and brain a great deal of good while the euphoria from drugs is destroying them.
A Little Less Science
We’ve covered what exercise does to your brain scientifically, but let’s discuss the effects that we all feel but that maybe science hasn’t been able to account for yet. There are few things that compare to the clarity that you are able to achieve while exercising. Exercise is a healthy way to clear your mind and allow your brain to function at its fullest. Exercise also helps to keep you more awake and alert throughout the day and provide you with a much higher energy level.
When you are alert you are able to stay focused and your brain is able to think clearly and logically. Exercise allows your brain to take better care of your body as well as allowing your body to take better care of your brain. Science is great and informative, but common sense can tell you just as easily that going out for a run is going to be much better for the overall health of your body and brain than sitting on the sofa staring at a television.