5 Brain Benefits Of Exercise

There are many amazing benefits to regular exercise.  Weight loss, cardiovascular health, a reduction in the risk of developing diabetes to name but a few.  Recent research indicates that perhaps the greatest health benefits of exercise may actually take place inside our minds.  Regardless of age or fitness level the impact of exercise on the brain can be profound. Raising one’s heart rate for as little as twenty minutes three times a week can produce amazing results.  Keep reading to discover five immediate and profound cognitive rewards of regular exercise.

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  1. Get Rid of Stress and Anxiety:
    In the modern connected world where we are bombarded by 24 hour news, constant alerts from our mobile leashes (ahem…phones), and the rigors of career and family it is easy to feel overwhelmed, overworked, and overloaded.  Exercise has been shown to have immediate effects in reducing the phenomenal experience of mental and physical stress and anxiety. It does this through several mechanisms. One of the primary ways it does so is by regulating our body’s stress hormones such as adrenaline.  
  2. Sleep Better:
    Studies have shown that up to 40% of the US adult population reports problems falling asleep.  Lack of sleep impacts our ability to process and retain information, affects mood, and diminishes one’s quality of life.  If you’ve ever been staring at your alarm clock at 2:30 in the morning knowing you have to be up early for a important meeting or other responsibility, I don’t need to tell you.  In a recent national study of sleep patterns researchers found that as little as 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week enabled participants to fall asleep faster and sleep better throughout the night.  
  3. Improve Cognition and Memory:  
    Regular exercise over a period as short as six months has been shown to increase the volume of both the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex.  Other research has indicated that regular exercise increases the production of cells in the hippocampus (a process called neurogenesis). These are all areas of the brain associated with memory and cognition.  When we exercise we actually make our brains bigger!
  4. Prevent Cognitive Decline:
    Perhaps the most exciting new research emerging concerning exercise and the brain is centered on exercise’s ability to reduce the harm associated with Alzheimer’s, dementia,  and other degenerative disorders of the brain. This is a truly amazing finding. These degenerative cognitive disorders are terrible to live with and anything that can help in our fight against them is welcomed.  Research indicates that regular exercise, can have a pronounced effect long term by increasing the chemicals in the brain that ward of degeneration of brain tissue.
  5. Be More Social:
    Many forms of exercise are social in nature.  Whether its a pick up basketball game, aerobics class, or working out in a Crossfit box, you’ll be getting a sweat in with many other people.  Connection and community are two very powerful contributors to a healthy mind and a fulfilling life. We are after all merely highly evolved pack animals.  We have been designed through evolution to create connection and exercise can be a great way to create connection with others in a safe healthy environment.
  6. Help Heal From The Effects of Addiction: (BONUS BENEFIT!)
    As this is a blog for a substance use and gambling treatment facility I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a bit of time talking about how exercise can impact addiction and the treatment of addiction.  As I have written elsewhere on this blog, addiction is a brain disease. One of the ways this can be quantified is by observing the fact that addiction like other brain diseases has predictable empirically verifiable patterns of brain damage associated with it.  In the case of addiction, over the long term, much of this damage occurs within the stress and avoidance centers of the brain. This causes a phenomenal experience for an addict of feeling stress, emotional and psychic pain more acutely than the average person. Exercise works both through direct and indirect mechanisms to offset and ultimately heal this damage.   Regular exercise produces, in the brain, both neuroregeneration and neurogenesis. Additionally, as touched on above exercise causes a flood of hormones to be released into the brain. These hormones are responsible for tissue growth (growth factors IGF1 and IGF2), regulating mood (dopamine, oxytocin, norepinephrine, and others). This release of hormones can reduce the experience of cravings and help to regulate the uptake and production of hormones within the body.  These are just two of the many effects that exercise has that lend themselves to the treatment of addiction. There are many others, I have discussed many aspects of this in other blog posts.

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Our research and the research of others show that as little as 150 minutes per week can have a dramatic impact on the brain and its functioning.  Further, we have determined that in order to generate all of the profound impacts of exercise one should aim to get their heart rate in the range of 75%-85% of max heart rate.  Experientially you want to be breathing heavy but not be winded. For a period of 30-45 minutes. When one hits these two markers not only do they enjoy the benefits listed above but the individual’s brain will actually be functioning at a higher frequency (as measured by Electroencephalogram).  Your brain will be operating at a higher wavelength, literally!  

Exercise has many physical, emotional, and mental benefits.  It really doesn’t take much effort to begin to enjoy them. In conclusion, as Nike has been telling us for years
“Just do it”.

Until next time
Your friend in service,

Rob Campbell  

Source: Loprinzi and Cardinal, “Association between objectively-measured physical activity and sleep.”  Mental Health and Physical Activity. 2011 Vol.4 Issue 2, pg. 65-69.

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