By Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., ACSM, Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist
You probably know that exercise is good for your physical health. A lower risk of weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers are among a long list of positive health effects of regular physical activity. But the rewards of exercise go beyond strengthening muscles and bones, burning fat, and improving heart health. Lesser known benefits include improved mental health, cognitive function, and greater feelings of wellbeing. In fact, research shows that exercise has far-reaching effects on the structure and function of the brain. This suggests that exercise may be another way to prevent and treat a host of conditions that have typically been addressed through traditional medical management. Let’s explore how regular exercise can have positive effects on your brain.
Exercise Feels Good (Exercise is a rush) Some people say that they experience feelings of euphoria, wellbeing, and reduced pain during and after an exercise session. This sensation, traditionally called “runner’s high,” is thought to be caused by the production of endorphins and other neurotransmitters in the brain. Endorphins are “feel good” chemicals that act similarly to opioids in the brain, which help explain the blunted perception of pain and positive feelings associated with prolonged exercise. And despite the name, “runner’s high” can occur after any long exercise session.
Exercise and Depression (Exercise is a mood enhancer) It turns out that exercise is an effective, if underused, strategy to treat depression, a condition that affects almost 15 million American adults. Exercise itself has been shown to be as effective as some medications for reducing depression symptoms. More commonly, exercise is used in addition to other treatment strategies, including antidepressant medications and counseling, increasing the effectiveness of those therapies. Research shows that exercise can reduce depression symptoms after just 10 days, even before many medications are effective. Both aerobic and resistance training are beneficial and it is likely that social support experienced through group exercise is important, too.
Exercise and Stress (Exercise is a chill pill) Chronic stress can have serious emotional, psychological, and physiological effects that lead to or exacerbate many health problems. While it is impossible to avoid all stress in life, minimizing stressors and managing the way you respond to stress can have important benefits. Exercise has long been recognized as beneficial for reducing feelings of stress as well as the long-term effects of stress on your health. This includes doing something active during a stressful situation and exercising regularly to improve the way your body responds to stress. While much research and practice has focused on specific types of exercise including yoga and Tai Chi, all forms of activity seem to work. Regular exercise should be part of your stress reduction plan, along with better time management and getting enough sleep.
Exercise and Cognitive Function (Exercise is a brain game) Changes in brain structure and function are a natural consequence of aging. The good news is that exercise can minimize the decline in cognitive function that occurs with age, just as it can preserve physical function. The benefits of physical activity on the brain may be due to physiological adaptations including increased blood flow, nerve connections, and levels of neurotransmitters. Exercise can also promote the formation of neurons in specific areas of the brain, including the hippocampus, involved in memory and learning, and the frontal lobe, which is important for higher-level information processing. These changes are associated with enhanced attention and concentration, better information processing and recall, and improved attitudes and feelings of wellbeing.
Many people use “brain games,” including word and number games and puzzles, to enhance brain function. A host of books, websites, and mobile apps make doing these activities fun and easy. While these games are certainly valuable, there isn’t much evidence that they improve brain function as much as you might expect. It turns out that the best way to boost your brain is to get up and actually play – exercise! Even taking short activity breaks at work or home can improve attention and productivity. In fact, the reason a coffee break makes you feel more alert may be the walk to get the coffee as much as it is the coffee itself.
Your exercise prescription The benefits of exercise for your brain can be achieved by following the same recommendations for general health: a minimum of 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise. You can meet this goal by going for a 30-minute brisk walk at least five days per week. Additional benefits come from doing more, either longer duration or higher intensity. While most of the research on exercise and the brain focuses on aerobic activity, adding some resistance training and flexibility exercise is a good idea. Certain types of exercise, like yoga and Tai Chi, are valued for reducing stress and improving mental health, so they are worth trying. Performing exercise outdoors has additional benefits on reducing stress and improving mood, so take your workout outside when you can. And even if you don’t experience runner’s high, know that your efforts are having a positive impact on your physical and mental health!
Brian B. Parr, Ph.D., is an ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist and Associate Professor in the Department of Exercise and Sports Science at the University of South Carolina Aiken.