“Exercise is really for the brain, not the body.”
– John J. Ratey, MD at Harvard Medical School
We all understand (I hope) that regular exercise is necessary to living a healthy life. But recently we have begun to, aside from theory, understand scientifically the direct benefits of exercise on our brain.
The two primary benefits our brain receives in response to regular exercise, in addition to a bevy of other benefits, are: mood enhancement and neurogenesis.
It is commonly understood, by those who incorporate it into their routine, that exercise makes us feel better. More self-confident. Happier. Sexier. But why? Is this a placebo effect? Something that’s just in our minds? Well, in a sense, yes – it is just in our minds.
The up-front explanation is that exercise increases blood flow to the brain, improving how it functions. Go a little deeper and we find that within 30 minutes of the first jumping-jack, exercise stimulates endorphin release – the chemicals that make us feel good about living, pull us out of depression, and force us to not hate Nickelback so much.
An oft-cited 2000 study at Duke University expounds upon this. The study, comprised of people over the age of 50 diagnosed with major depression, divided its subjects into three groups: those treated with exercise, those treated with the antidepressant Zoloft, and those treated with a combination of the two. While all three groups felt better, it was found that 10 months later the group treated solely with exercise had significantly lower relapse rates. It was concluded that regular exercise over time is a viable form of therapy for depression.
It is also noted by Dr. Bruce Lipton, Ph.D., in his book The Biology of Belief, that the body is made up of complex pathways through which proteins interact. What this implies is that the proteins that govern the functioning of our bodies are used in different parts of the body simultaneously. What this means is that when a drug, like Zoloft, is prescribed to correct a dysfunction in one part of the body, its effects are residual in other parts of the body. So even though you may feel better for a time thanks to a drug, that drug is disrupting other parts of the body of which you may not even be aware (Lipton, 2005).
Exercise, on the other hand, opens up these pathways that drugs would deign to block or distort. Combining this facet of the benefits of exercise over drugs for mood enhancement, it’s clear that exercise is exponentially healthier than drugs for bringing you around to a better brain.
For years scientists believed that, after a certain age, our brain enters a constant state of decay; that once brain cells were killed there was no retrieving them. It seemed obvious, based on observation, that our minds became less acute as we grew older. Senility, Alzheimer’s, Sunday drivers – they all pointed to this fact. All we could hope to do was maintain our level of brain function, and even that was difficult.
Recent studies suggest, however, that that is simply not the case – so long as we take action. Neurogenesis, the formulation of new neurons and neural pathways, has been found to continue in mammals well beyond their formative years, primarily in the hippocampus – that part of your brain responsible for short- and long-term memory. But what is exercise’s role?
Aerobic exercise has been found to reinforce neural connections by increasing the number of those connections (dendrites) between neurons, creating a denser network that can better process and store information. Here’s how it works:
Exercise –> triggers brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) –> creates proteins –> creates new brain cells.
But we can’t exercise our way to genius levels, unfortunately. The Law of Diminishing Returns that economists hold so dear likewise holds true in that exercise can only benefit us to a point. If we exercise too much, we can actually inhibit brain function in the form of exhaustion.
So begin helping your brain today by incorporating exercise into your schedule. Find your balance, don’t work yourself too hard, and pave your way to a bigger, better – and happier – brain.