Exercise Your Brain! (Part 1)

Experts worldwide are jumping on the brain bandwagon, eager to teach you about the neuroscience of happiness, the brain science of managing, and brain tips for peak performance.  It’s an exciting time.  As knowledge workers in the 21st century, our success depends on having a healthy, functioning brain.  But if you’ve read a few of the latest articles on brain science, you may find yourself scratching your head, wondering what you should be doing differently. Science can now answer this question, having made incredible strides over the last 5 years. While many previously thought our brains steadily deteriorated after age 25, this turns out to be false. Researchers have proved the brain can grow new neurons and tissue well into old age, as long as we pay attention to four key areas: 

  1. New learning and thinking
  2. Physical health (muscles, cardiovascular system)
  3. A healthful, balanced diet
  4. Low stress, emotional stability and high happiness levels

While you cannot stop aging, you can prolong your brain’s healthy function. The No. 1 method is to create a healthy environment for the brain to thrive. It turns out that the same things that keep your heart healthy, keep your brain in good shape.  This article will discuss how physical activity influences the health of your brain, followed by future articles on the other three domains. 

Your Body, Your Brain 

Brain health depends on a regular practice of aerobic exercise. Researchers have not yet established a definitive guideline, but most agree on 30 minutes, at least three to four times a week, to elevate heart rate.  If you’re exercise-phobic, disabled or just plain stubborn, it will be more difficult to maintain a healthy brain in the long run. 

Regardless of your current exercise habits, you’ll need to accept this irrefutable fact: Your brain will deteriorate with age unless you engage in some form of regular exercise or sport. Sedentary people lose brain cells more quickly and are susceptible to loss of focus and concentration, memory lapses and learning difficulties. They also have a far greater chance of developing personality problems, mood disorders, attention disorders and, in worst cases, dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.  Crossword puzzles and Sudoku aren’t enough to stave off deterioration. You need to get your body moving.

Why Physical Activity? 

Physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel. Research studies reveal:

  • Exercise cues the building blocks of learning in our brains.
  • Exercise affects mood.
  • It lowers stress and anxiety.
  • It improves our ability to pay attention, focus and concentrate.
  • It helps stave off the deleterious effects of hormonal changes.

Some readers may be familiar with the term “runner’s high”— the notion that joggers and walkers experience a rush of endorphins (brain peptides) that make them feel terrific. An exercise-associated increase in endorphin production has been measured in lab rats as well as in people. 

Researchers have also found that exercise increases levels of neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, which help regulate mood and emotions.  People who have low levels of these neurotransmitters often suffer from clinical depression and stress, which can erode the connections among the brain’s billions of nerve cells. Chronic depression actually shrinks certain areas of the brain. 

Conversely, exercise unleashes a cascade of neurotransmitters and growth factors that can reverse this process. Think of the brain as a muscle: It grows with use, and it withers with inactivity.

More on exercise and your brain tomorrow…

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