When we make the decision to exercise, it’s usually for fear of our beach bod, not our brain power. But while exercise does have a profound impact on whether we can look attractive and still eat ice cream, it actually affects our brain more than our waistlines. Studies have shown that heading to the gym regularly or even adding slightly more activity to our lives sparks the portions of our brain that are left dormant in our sitting lifestyle, and affects our cognitive functions both now and in our older years.
What are the real effects of exercise on your brain, and how can you benefit from them?
- You’ll Have Greater Focus
Your brain operates much like an engine. If it’s not properly cleaned, lubricated, and fueled, it’s going to be running at unimpressively half strength. Exercising encourages the flow of oxygen to your brain, which serves as fuel, and also boosts the flow of endorphins, the human body’s natural self-defense mechanism to smooth over pain or fatigue so you can complete tasks better, faster, and for longer. While this chemical was originally meant to keep us on point during times of danger, going for a quick powerwalk can give you the same focus our ancestors needed to make intelligent decisions to ensure their survival.
- Your Mood Will Improve Almost Immediately
Any simple exercise that gets your heart rate up more than when you’re sitting at your desk browsing Facebook will trigger endorphins to flood through your body, giving you relief from muscle pain and aches while encouraging you to work out harder. This is your body’s way of rewarding you and also a method of numbing anything that would prevent you from continuing to run, climb, or maneuver – all things that make it possible to escape danger. As a reward, endorphins dull the hormones in your body that fuel a negative mood, naturally soothing you. So by stopping to do a few sit-ups or take a lap around the office, you’re triggering your body’s natural mood stabilizer.
- Want a Boost of Creativity? Get Your Blood Pumping
In that afternoon slump where creativity and motivation grinds to a halt, all we need is something to get our brain firing on all cylinders again. You need a little extra gas in the tank to have punch. This comes in the form of a few easy stretches or sit-ups; that increased blood flow encourages a burst of oxygen to the brain, which reactivates the portions of your mind that go dormant during tedious or routine tasks. As a defense mechanism to conserve energy, your brain will in essence reroute power from its creative and long-term memory portions so that you can save this strength for later. Exercise breaks your mind from this routine and lets it know that a new routine is being set in place, so you need more power to take on new tasks. Even if you return to your previous project, your mind will still be enjoying that burst of energy and therefore creativity you need.
- Your Neural Signals Will Fire Faster and Better
Since exercise snaps your brain to attention, preparing it for important tasks that would usually be a matter of life or death in our early centuries as a species, it also encourages the paths for neural signals and chemical flow to open up, allowing for the signals to transmit to and from the brain more efficiently. This results in faster response times to pain, bringing relief – especially in your back and neck.
- Your Brain Will Not Only Grow, But Grow Healthier
It’s a sad fact of life that as we age, our brain begins to degenerate; but adding a few exercises that get your blood pumping can do away with this. The human brain thrives on oxygen to function at its peak condition by using it as fuel to create new cells, which effectively grow and rejuvenate your mind. As we get older, our brain slows in its production, but exercises that get our heart pumping encourages cell production to boost. Studies show that patients with degenerating brains who make exercise a regular part of their daily routine see a fantastic improvement in their brain growth after just six months in comparison to those who maintained their sedentary lifestyle.
- Your Memory Will Get Better and Last Into Your Golden Years
A few too many drinks, a love for the less green food groups, and good ol’ genes can really bite us when it comes to memory – especially in the long run, as we get into our golden years. But taking a few laps up and down the stairs doesn’t just give you killer gluts. A focus group of people aged 55 to 80 showed that those who exercised regularly performed up to four times better on memory tests than those who didn’t. This indicates that exercise has the ability to recover the strength of your memory as well as preserve it before you get older, making it worthwhile to add a few trips to the gym to your schedule if you find yourself forgetting names and dates.
- Mental Illness Will be Easier to Manage
Of course there’s no magical cure for mental illness – but your brain does have a few tricks up its sleeve when it comes to soothing the affects it has on your body. The production of hormones known as serotonin and dopamine are designed to boost positive mood, pushing back some of the most negative effects of anxiety, depression, and other mental illness that sap you of energy and motivation. But rather than taking medication to kick these chemicals into gear, you can take advantage of exercise to naturally trigger them in your body. By power walking or jogging on a treadmill for a few minutes, and then drinking a few glasses of water, you’re encouraging your body to flood your system with positive chemicals and then flush out toxins that could be making your body unbalanced.
- Stress Will Melt Away
Let’s face it; we’re all a little stressed. We accept it as a part of life, but few understand the true toll it takes on our bodies. High levels of cortisol as a result from stress inspires fatigue, affects our ability to create new cells, and even damages the portion of your brain responsible for storing long-term memories. However, exercise naturally lowers your cortisol levels, melting away stress and leaving you more balanced and relaxed than before. As an extra advantage, the lower levels of cortisol even stimulate your brain’s dentate gyrus, which processes and stores memories. That means you’re not only keeping your brain strong with less stress, but making it possible to become stronger and more resistant to stress as you increase your levels of exercise.
When you find yourself fatigued, bummed out, forgetting a few names and faces, or in need of that extra punch of creativity to complete a task, don’t go for an energy drink or some fancy medication. Doing a few push-ups or a lap around the block could be exactly what you need to activate your brains dormant abilities.