Exercise and physical activity play such a vital health role in the body. This isn’t a groundbreaking secret.
Effects range from reducing risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes to improving bone strength and preventing arthritis.
Of course, there is also the benefit of weight loss, looking better and feeling more energetic. But what about the other lesser known effects? What about the effects of exercise on your brain and memory?
I recently listened to a TED talk online on this very subject. Afterwards. I started reading up on studies about exercise and the brain. As it turns out, exercise is one of the most transformative things you can do for your brain. It can have immediate and long-lasting changes that can improve memory, mood and prevent degeneration.
Although the brain isn’t actually a muscle, it responds in a very similar way to exercise that muscles do. In that sense, the brain is no different than any other muscle in the body. You either use it or lose it. When you don’t exercise a muscle, it will become atrophied and weak.
The same is true for the brain. We often hear about “brain games” that are good for preventing memory loss, dementia and Alzheimer’s. Examples of brain games include crossword puzzles and Sudoku. However, exercise can have just as large of an impact as those game. It’s also better for your overall health because it is physical activity.
Areas of the brain that are most effected by exercise
There are two important regions of the brain that can affect memory, thought, mood and concentration. They are the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for your decision making, ability to focus and your personality. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that allows you to form and retain long-term memories.
These two areas are very susceptible to neurodegeneration and age-related atrophy that can lead to memory loss and dementia. In fact, globally, there is one new case of dementia every four seconds! That’s a pretty incredible statistic, and I think we all want to do whatever it takes to not be in that group.
Immediate effects of exercise on the brain
There are several changes that happen almost instantly following exercise.
First, your focus increases. Focus has been shown to be increased for at least two hours following a workout. This can help improve your work performance, productivity with tasks and ability to create ideas or solve problems.
Second, there is a release of neurochemicals such as noradrenaline, dopamine and serotonin that can dramatically improve your mood.
Reaction time is also improved. Your ability for your brain to respond to changes in your environment will be elevated following exercise. This can result in more rapid decision making and decrease risk for falls.
Exercise can change the anatomy, physiology and function of the brain
Studies have shown that exercise (mainly aerobic exercise) for as little as 20 minutes can improve the function of the hippocampus. Exercise will allow the hippocampus to produce more new brain cells and actually grow in volume. This is a very important finding. As mentioned before, the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are both highly susceptible to degeneration over time. Just adding exercise to your daily routine can build strength in these areas resulting in delayed degeneration. Exercise may be the easiest way to protect your brain from incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
What type of exercise should you do?
Most any type of exercise would be appropriate. Walking, exercise classes, going to the gym or even playing a sport are good forms of exercise. The key to effective exercise is getting your heart rate up and sweating. You want to participate in an activity that is moderate in intensity for it to be effective. You need to stress your body in order to get the desired physical and mental affects.
Walking is the easiest and most cost-effective way to get exercise. It’s absolutely free and doesn’t require any equipment. You just need motivation, and what could be more motivating than avoiding dementia?
Start taking the stairs at work and taking walking breaks during the day. You only need 20-30 minutes of sustained exercise per day to get results. If that seems like a lot, then start with every other day or less time per day and gradually build your way up. It may be tough at first, but you’ll feel better as you get more exercise. Your endurance will improve, you’ll have more energy and feel more productive.
If you need more motivation, then try a group class or join a sports club that will hold you accountable to a schedule. There are so many options for exercise out there. It’s just a matter of finding what fits for you.
Exercise has so many physical benefits that you probably already knew about. Now you understand that there are mental benefits as well. I think a lot of people are fearful of getting older and losing their memory. With exercise playing such an important role in preventing this, it’s a no-brainer that you should be doing it. There is always time to exercise. Spending 20-30 minutes a day isn’t asking too much when you see all the positives that can result. Get started today. Your body and mind will thank you for it.
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