Wish you could find a fountain of youth for your brain? Look no further than your own body and get it moving. If you add even a small amount of regular exercise to your day, your brain will reap countless benefits. How does exercise affect the brain? It’s a good question to ask and the answer can dramatically affect your quality of life.
Humans are meant to move and think each day. Your brain and body work together so it should be no surprise that they both benefit from regular physical activity. Laptops, phones, and TVs have made our lives better and more stimulating in many ways. But an increased presence of media has also lead many of us to sit to remain sitting for the majority of each day.
If you develop sedentary habits in your younger years, you’ll have more trouble staying ahead of changes to your body that come with age. Weight can creep up on you, risk of heart disease goes up, and the odds of developing chronic illnesses increase. Instead of enjoying the freedoms that come with retirement, your senior years could be spent recovering from a heart attack or stroke.
So come on – I know you don’t want that kind of life and neither do I. It’s easier than you think to boost your brain and your body at the same time. It just starts with one step.
What Actually Happens In The Brain During Exercise
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain
Everyone agrees that exercise is physically great for the body. Researchers have been exploring something else people have known for years about exercise – the brain gets a boost in dozens of ways. Exercise has an impressive effect on our mental health and it helps to understand why.
When you become active and really start moving your body, your blood pressure starts to rise. The brain gets the signal that your body is under stress. In response, a protein called “Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor” (BDNF) is released into the bloodstream. This protein is considered to be a “reset switch” for your memory neurons. Once BDNF starts circulating through your body, it begins repairing these neurons. This process helps your body feel at ease and can make thoughts seem crystal clear.
You’ve probably heard a lot more about endorphins than BDNF. Endorphins are often described as a natural drug created by the body. They are a type of hormone secreted in the brain to limit the degree of pain and discomfort associated with exercise, even creating the sense of euphoria known as runner’s high.
The physical stress brought on by exercise is managed with these two “feel good” body chemicals. They act to add pleasure to your experience and act as a natural anti-depressant. This causes a reduction in hormones associated with stress. Additionally, a study conducted in Stockholm showed that running stimulates cell growth in the hippocampus. This is the portion of the brain responsible for memory and learning, something you definitely want to keep growing as you age.
How Our Mind And Body Are Affected by Exercise
So now you know how BDNF and endorphins give us a good feeling after exercise. It’s easy to get hooked on this sensation, which is sometimes why people can seem a little obsessed with exercising. It’s a nice natural payoff to make up for some temporary strain to your body.
Besides the short-term high from endorphins and BDNF, exercise also has long-term benefits. Studies show that people are happier and more productive throughout the day when they exercise. A research study published in Neuroscience in 2012 showed that people who had exercised regularly throughout the month including the day of the study had a lower perception of stress than those who had exercised only on the day of the study.
Of course, that’s not to say that there is no benefit on the first day of exercise. Gretchen Reynolds, author of The First 20 Minutes, says this about the benefits of exercise, “The first 20 minutes of moving around, if someone has been really sedentary, provide most of the health benefits.” So while people who exercise regularly have much better moods than those who don’t, you’ll get your biggest boost just by getting started.
How does exercise affect the brain like that in just 20 minutes? Think about that. In a short period of time, exercise will increase your heart rate and pump more oxygen to the brain while also releasing hormones that nourish growing brain cells. Pretty amazing!
How To Maximize Your 20 Minutes
When I’ve tried to get back on the wagon of exercising, I usually made the mistake of jumping into an hour-long intense class or pop in a DVD with a push-your-limits approach. That usually ended up causing me a lot of pain and exhaustion, plus little motivation to repeat it anytime soon. A better approach would have been to shoot for 20-30 minutes. That way I would have leeway to rest if I was feeling overworked and still keep a reasonable goal of completing my goal.
So all the recent research about just needing 20 minutes is so encouraging, especially for you and me when we’ve been sitting around for a while. The key is to turn it into a habit. A quick walk after supper or a stroll before you get ready for work will do it. If this really energizes you, build it up to a longer time or a more intense activity. Heck, take a few extra laps around the hardware store or your local Walmart before picking up groceries and that can count. Just make a commitment to be active 20 minutes a day and you’ll build the foundations of a good habit.
Tapping Into the Mental And Physical Connection
Dancing is a great form of exercise
There is an important mental and physical connection that can increase the benefits of exercise. Any exercise that engages the brain with rhythm, strategy, or coordination can work out the brain as much as your body. Dancing is a great example. The thought required to remember and repeat a chain of movements is going to challenge your mind more than something repetitive like running or cycling.
Anticipating your movements and coordinating them to a rhythm or tempo will integrate many functions of your mind and body at the same time. So if you like cutting a rug, put a little variety into your exercise plan with a dance-oriented workout. I’ve found that a cardio step workout or even an up-tempo yoga routine can have a similar effect. Sometimes you need the smooth repetition from a walk, and other times you need to get your boogie on. Do what works for you!
Adding Exercise To Your Life
Working out in the morning before heading to the office or school helps to jump-start your brain activity. It prepares you for any stress you encounter throughout your day and stimulates your ability to learn and cope with each moment. It sure beats going into the day feeling like you’re in a slump.
Start-off easy and gradually increase the length and intensity of your workout. I know this sounds like it wouldn’t matter, but the key here is starting a long-lasting and stable exercise habit. It’s much better to commit to 5-10 minutes a day a stick to it like glue than to have a few sporadic heavy workouts several days apart. Going to a group or class at the gym can make exercising more fun, but don’t feel like that’s the only way to get started.
Doing something every day in your own home or neighborhood is a great way to start if you feel out of shape or aren’t sure if you can keep up with a class. No matter how you do it, just get started and consider what you like. You never know what you might enjoy so it’s good to be open to a variety of choices such as biking, walking, weight training, yoga, and so on. In fact, the more you vary your routine, the less bored you’ll be. Boredom can squash the development of an exercise habit, so change it up a little bit and give yourself something new to look ahead to.
However, getting motivated to go to the gym regularly can be a challenge, so try different exercises at home and outdoors in your neighborhood, such as jogging, biking, strength training, etc. Variety is the spice of life, and the more you vary your routine the better for your motivation and your body.
There are many apps on your smartphone that can provide you with workout sets for all experience levels and even guide you through the exercises. Apps like Map My Fitness and My Fitness Pal can help you track your progress. Watching yourself improve is a great way to stay motivated and stay on track
How Does Exercise Affect the Brain? Final Thoughts and Tips
Remember, your mind and body are closely connected. Getting some daily exercise is one of the best ways to improve your mental and physical health. The release of endorphins and BDNF makes you feel good right now and helps you look forward to your next workout. Long-term benefits include reduced risk of disease, improved mental health, stronger body/muscles, reduced stress, improved digestion, improved blood circulation, and much more.
Just going on a 20 minute daily walk is immensely better for you than sitting on the couch. Find an exercise buddy, set a schedule, do whatever you have to do to get those endorphins and BDNF proteins pumping as often as you can. I’ve got 20 minutes today to improve my health and I know you do too.
Set your timer and go!