When we move our muscles, proteins travel through the bloodstream and into the brain. They play pivotal roles in our complex thought processes. Your brain is like an air traffic controller, running the show. Right now, your frontal lobes are firing signals. The degree to which you soak up the information in this article is determined by the balance of neurochemicals and growth factors in your brain.
Exercise has a documented, dramatic effect on these essential brain chemicals. Chances are, if you’ve already completed 30 minutes of exercise today, your brain is a highly motivated sponge that’s primed to receive, organize and store new information for future retrieval. Understanding the physiology can help you think of exercise as something you need to do, not something you must begrudgingly do. And once you get started, you’ll begin to think of it as something you want to do — now and in the future.
Numerous studies support the aforementioned claims:
- In October 2000, Duke University researchers found that exercise is as good as, and in some cases, better than sertraline (Zoloft) in treating depression
- In Naperville, Illinois, a revolutionary high school physical education program transformed the student body into one of the nation’s fittest. While 30% of all U.S. teens are overweight, the Naperville students were only 3% overweight. And in 1999 international math and science competitions, these fit teens took sixth and first place, respectively.
- Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California at Irvine, has studied long-term aging to find commonalities among people whose minds remain sharp. Those with the least cognitive decline share three factors:
- Self-efficacy (a personal sense of control over one’s life)
- A 2007 study found that people who exercise learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster — a rate of learning that correlates directly with levels of Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor, (BDNF), a protein so powerful that it’s been dubbed the “Miracle-Gro” of the brain.
Before these studies, psychiatry had accepted the idea that exercise could probably help improve our minds by creating a conducive learning environment. Now, researchers know that exercise strengthens the cellular machinery of learning, staving off the effects of stress and aging.
No matter what your current physical exercise habits are, it’s time to get moving. Just like the dentist who advises, “Only floss the teeth you want to keep,” perhaps it’s time to “only exercise if you want to keep those brain cells.”