When it comes to getting a mental edge, developing an exercise habit is the way to go. You know from experience that a tough workout can make you feel on top of the world. And of course, it’s the perfect opportunity to blow off steam from life’s daily stressors. Despite this, few people realize how deep the brain benefits of exercise go.
Exercise Reduces Brain Inflammation
One of the biggest brain benefits of exercise is reducing inflammation that leads to cognitive decline. Exercise leads to the release of an anti-inflammatory molecule known as BDNF that has many brain benefits. It protects against debilitating brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, and improves how your brain processes information. This means that exercise pays off in terms of better grades and a higher salary.
Some research indicates exercise even increases IQ, and it appears to teach people to focus better and avoid distractions. It also builds self-esteem, counters anxiety, and prevents depression.
Exercise Improves Brain Chemistry
What is most interesting is how the brain undergoes both structural and psychological adaptations to optimize function.
For the structural brain benefits of exercise, you experience an increase in blood vessels and brain neurons.
For the psychological brain benefits, exercise improves how you think, problem solve, and react to stress. It also changes brain chemistry and increases insulin sensitivity so that the brain is more efficient and experiences less oxidative stress that damages brain cells.
If this isn’t enough to convince you to hit the gym, this article will persuade you by highlighting the profound effects exercise has on the brain.
#1: Cognitive Benefits
Cognitive function is responsible for memory, learning, and intelligence. It includes skills such as being able to control your emotions when under stress and make on-the-spot decisions. These are the fundamental brain abilities that are first lost with aging.
This is one reason that most of the research in this area has been done on older adults who are at risk of cognitive decline. The brain atrophies with age, literally shrinking in size and number of active neurons, but exercise has a preventative effect.
For example, adults who did 6 months of aerobic training scored better on recall, reaction time, and spatial memory tests that consisted of remembering a list of 15 random words and the location of dots on a computer screen.
In younger populations, the research is limited, but we do know that the more active children are, the better they learn and score on intelligence IQ tests. Additionally, the more frequently students exercise, the better their academic performance and higher their grade point averages are in college.
#2: Psychological Benefits
One of the coolest brain benefits of exercise is how it improves mood and combats your experience of stress. Not only is exercise a great treatment for depression, but it trains you to be more resilient in tough situations. This might surprise you since exercise is a physically stressful activity. So, how does it work?
First, you get the release of feel-good endorphins that are associated with what is known as a “runners high.” Endorphins are natural, mild opioids that are released in the brain in response to intense exercise and they have a stress-lowering effect.
Second, exercise has a long-lasting effect on mood, making it the perfect tool for treating and preventing depression. One review showed exercise was just as effective as anti-depressants for fighting depression. A related benefit of exercise is less anxiety and higher self-esteem.
The best news may be that your efforts in the gym will pay off in terms of happiness. Higher levels of exercise are consistently linked with a happier brain, while diminishing levels of activity lead to low mood and depression.
#3: Neurobiological Benefits
If you’re like most people, you rarely think about how complex an organ your brain is. In fact, it is an incredible organization of structures (blood vessels and neurons) that is bathed in a sea of neurochemicals. Exercise enhances the physical hardware and supplies it with fuel so that it can operate at the highest level.
Chances are, you’ve felt mentally and physically exhausted after a tough day at work and considered bagging your workout. But you went ahead and powered through it, finding yourself completely rejuvenated at the end. How does this happen?
The combination of endorphins and energizing neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine will reduce fatigue and leave you feeling upbeat. Exercise also reorganizes the structure of the brain to react differently during fatigue or stress. Instead of succumbing to these negative feelings, the brain releases a neurotransmitter that reduces the level of anxiety when exposed to stress. Researchers consider it a neuro-level coping mechanism that can improve your ability to make good decisions and exert self-control throughout the day.
#4: Lifestyle Benefits
The exciting thing about exercise is that it pays off by making your life more enjoyable. Exercise changes how we work through problems and come up with new ideas.
A revealing study from Michigan State shows how exercise impacts daily life. In a 2-year study of freshman, those with gym memberships were less likely to drop out of college than non-exercisers.
Exercise pays off in terms of career success as well. A large study of more than 5,000 twins from Finland found that those who exercised more earned more money over a 15-year period. Physically active participants had incomes 14 to 17 percent higher than less active twins.
Researchers believe exercise enhances a person’s performance at work by improving perseverance when facing obstacles. It also makes them more competitive.
The ramifications of this data go beyond recognizing the brain benefits of exercise. It shows that people who value their fitness are more likely to develop habits in their best interests, persevere through difficulty, and reach goals for greater personal and professional success.
Tips For Getting Brain Benefits of Exercise
Incorporate Conditioning & Strength Training
Both conditioning and strength exercise have benefits for the brain, though the effects are unique. Use a program that incorporates both. You could do strength training 4 days a week to strengthen the brain—muscle connection for better physical performance. Perform some form of conditioning on the other days of the week, either in the form of interval training or moderate aerobic exercise.
Be Active In Daily Life
Spontaneous physical activity outside of regularly planned exercise will boost your brain by improving insulin sensitivity, blood flow, and gene signaling. Anything that breaks up sedentary time, whether it’s doing chores, running errands, playing with the kids, or walking the dog will pay off with brain benefits.
Train In The Morning
Exercising in the morning ensures you get your workout in and it spikes brain activity and prepares you for the mental stresses of the rest of the day. Because it boosts the release of brain chemicals, it also may increase retention of new material and set you up for better reactions in complex situations.
Periodize Your Training
Doing the same thing week after week without end leads to diminishing returns for your body and brain. Mix up your workouts every 3 to 6 weeks by increasing your weights, changing your exercises, or altering lifting tempo. Incorporating new forms of activity into your routine will also benefit the brain: Try yoga, do tai chi, go dancing, or add pilates.
The biggest obstacle most busy people have is finding time and being consistent with their workouts. Studies show that individuals who show up and get the work done reap the greatest brain benefits of exercise. Insulin sensitivity, improvements in brain chemistry, and reduction of inflammation are all linked to volume and frequency of exercise.