Have you ever noticed that after you exercise your whole mood brightens? You could come home after a stressful day and instead of flopping down on the couch you go for a brisk walk, bike ride, run, and all those stressed out feelings just sort of melt away. You feel happier, more relaxed, but guess what? You even just boosted your brain health. It’s true – exercise keeps your brain functioning optimally and thanks you in many other beneficial ways that I’d like to tell you about…
Get Moving, Get Happy, Get Smarter
If you exercise to keep your weight down, muscles toned, and your heart and lungs healthy – good! Those are good reasons. Yet, exercise doesn’t just keep your body healthy. It also recharges your brain cells, kind of like plugging a battery into a power pack. In return, your brain rewards you by releasing “feel good” hormones of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine. These are natural antidepressants that exercise – and some food – helps your body produce.
Studies show that 3 sessions of yoga per week boosts GABA – a neurotransmitter brain chemical – that helps decrease anxiety and depression. Mental health practitioners often recommend exercise several times a week to augment other therapies in the treatment of depression. These chemicals also help release stress throughout your entire body and boost your self-esteem and confidence, making you feel like you can do whatever you set out to do.
But the brain benefits of exercise don’t stop there. Here are several other important things it does:
1. Boosts learning capacity. Exercise also releases other chemicals in your body called “growth factors”. These help create new brain cells and their connections which help you learn. In fact, studies show that exercising before reading a book or studying can help you retain information better. Exercise that helps improve your coordination – like dance, tennis, etc – provide the biggest boost to increasing brain capacity. They stimulate your brain to grow the same way exercise stimulates muscles to grow.
2. Slows down aging. Just as exercise slows down aging in your body, your brain cells also reap the benefits as well.
3. Reduces risk/slows progression of Alzheimer’s disease. Exercise protects a part of your brain called the hippocampus that governs your memory and your spatial navigation – how you move through your environment. This area of your brain suffers the effects of Alzheimer’s first. A recent study in the Archives of Neurology revealed that daily exercise can lower the risk of Alzheimer disease by stimulating greater protection for this part of your brain. In addition, if Alzheimer’s has already begun, regular exercise can help slow its progression or blunt its effect. Other research has shown that people who have the genetics for developing Alzheimer’s, and don’t exercise, are 4 times more prone to developing the disease than those who do.
The Best All-Over Exercise for Your Brain
Although any type of exercise – even leisurely walking, gardening, golfing, can give brain benefits, new research shows that interval exercise really amps up your mood and can help you feel happy – almost euphoric – for the rest of the day. Interval exercise is any aerobic exercise in which you do very fast “sprints” for about 60 seconds, rest for a minute or two, then repeat the sprints for a series of about 10-12 sets. If you’re just starting to exercise, you might want to rest a little longer between sprints until you build up your capacity. Just about any aerobic exercise works well for interval sprints, but some of the best include:
1. Jogging on a treadmill
3. Stair stepper or elliptical
4. Jumping jacks or jumping rope
If you want to gradually ease into doing intervals, focus on doing just 20 minutes of moderate paced aerobic exercise 3-4 times a week, or milder paced exercise (a somewhat brisk walk, bicycle ride) 30 minutes every day. An alternative would be to exercise 10-15 minutes in the morning, and 10-15 minutes in the early evening.
Although numerous studies document all the positive anti-aging benefits of exercise on your body in general, the benefits you’ll most notice immediately are those it offers to your brain. It literally breathes new oxygen and life into you, recharging your energy and your spirits making you feel stronger, healthier and younger!