We all know exercise helps to increase your energy level, expedites weight loss and helps with weight management efforts, as well as provide tremendous benefits to your overall health, but what about your brain? What if any impact does physical exercise have on your brain? Many people claim that regular exercise helps keep them sane, but what are the facts?
If you think about it, it makes sense that physical exercise would improve our mental fitness. Our brains are big oxygen hogs using about 20% of the total oxygen that we breathe in. When we exercise our breathing is increased, taking in more oxygen. All that extra oxygen feeds your brain. And when properly fed, your brain performs better. Oxygen increases the brain's neuron creation as well as its resistance to damage and stress. Studies show that in response to exercise, cerebral blood vessels can grow.
However our brains cannot store the energy it gets from oxygen so it needs a steady flow to function normally. And when we don't get enough oxygen your brain is greatly impacted! Oxygen deficiency can decrease your alertness, memory and judgment as well as just make you feel blah.
Besides feeding your brain with lots of oxygen, exercise also releases our bodies’ feel good chemicals, endorphins. It's that whole "runner's high" phenomenon. It's not a myth, exercise does in fact make us feel good. And as it turns out, it also makes us smarter.
Recent research has shown a strong connection between exercise and higher mental function. Many believe it's those endorphines that help spur brain cell growth. What happens is, exercise stimulates our nerve cells to produce chemicals called neurotrophic factors which encourage brain cells to grow and to connect with other neurons. Other chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline are triggered during exercise and, at least in the short run, wake up the brain's processing systems giving us better mental acuity.
There have been hundreds of studies on the impact of exercise and our mental health and the findings are quite positive. While exercise-induced release of endorphines definitely lightens one's mood, exercise has also been shown to help people recover from depression. Clinical depression is related to low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. The biochemistry can get complicated but the outcome is simple: exercise stimulates the sympathetic nervous system which increases concentrations of these neurotransmitters enabling them to function normally keeping us balanced mentally.
Research indicates that the antidepressant effect of exercise begins as early as the first session of exercise and persists even after your workout is complete. Obviously the more consistent you are with an exercise program, and the more intense you exercise, the more significant the impact. But any exercise makes a positive impact.
We often hear conflicting advice on how long and how often we need to exercise. It can get confusing. But here's an easy number to remember: 30. Just thirty minutes a day (and it can be spread out throughout the day) and you will reap the benefits of good physical and mental health.
It's important to remember that exercise doesn't necessarily mean going to the gym or taking an exercise class, it can just mean you park your car a little further from the front door of the store. Or it can be that you walk down to a co-worker's office to delivery a message (as opposed to sending an email). Or you do some sit ups while watching TV. You could even sneak in a little exercise at your desk at work! It all counts towards your 30 minutes.