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Why Your Brain Loves It When You Exercise?

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8 Min Read

That rush you get after a morning run is your brain telling you how happy it is! Exercising can protect your brain from aging, make you smarter and more attentive, boost your memory, and help you sleep better. Exercising may even give you the willpower to resist that doughnut! So what’s stopping you? Move your body, and your brain will thank you for it too!

Exercise is known to get your blood pumping and your heart singing. But did you know that your brain loves it too? While most people exercise to lose weight or get in better shape physically, the benefits also extend to your brain. In fact, you can literally grow your brain by exercising!

Stay Young

Exercising can make you feel younger and more energetic – and that applies to your brain too! Studies show that exercising can have a protective effect on the brain as you age.1 Scientists are also constantly discovering new mechanisms through which exercising keeps us young. A molecule called irisin, produced in the brain during endurance exercise and then released into the bloodstream, can help protect against neurological degeneration. Rising levels of irisin in the circulation cause the molecule to cross the blood–brain barrier, where it increases the expression of a crucial protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and activates genes involved in cognition.2 BDNF is essential for maintaining healthy neurons and for creating new ones that will help prevent age-related neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

The speed at which you process information declines as you age, because of the loss of white matter in the brain. Research has shown that exercise can help preserve both gray matter volume and white matter integrity in the brain.3

Sleep Tight

If you spend the night tossing and turning, amp up your workout routine – you can actually exercise your way to a good night’s sleep. The brain is largely responsible for sending us to sleep and waking us up. Several areas in the brain stem and hypothalamus keep us awake by sending arousal signals to the cerebral cortex. Neurons from a part of the hypothalamus called the ventrolateral preoptic nucleus cause us to go to sleep by inhibiting activity in arousal-promoting centers. Moderate exercise, at least six hours before going to bed, has been found to improve the quality of sleep.4

Hitting the gym right before you go to bed, however, might not be a good idea because a good workout can make you feel energetic and pumped up. In fact, it might be best if you take an afternoon exercise break! People who exercise in the afternoon report fewer disruptions to their sleep than those who exercise in the morning.5 But do be patient – it might take a few months of regular exercise for the benefits to kick in.6

Stop Procrastinating

Exercise has been found to improve what’s called the inhibitory control. Inhibitory control allows us to control our impulses and habits so we can work toward and achieve a goal. If you have lower inhibition, you’re likely to be more easily distracted. Research on children with ADHD, an attention deficit disorder, shows that exercise can lower their impulsivity.7 If you’ve been finding it difficult to stay on task, you’ll see exercising regularly can miraculously strengthen your willpower.

Boost Your Memory

Exercise can improve various aspects of memory. A study conducted at the University of British Columbia on women aged 70–80 years with mild cognitive impairment showed that exercising led to improvements in their associative memory (remembering things in context, for instance, where you met someone), spatial memory (remembering where things were once placed in time), and verbal memory (remembering words).8 Research shows that the hippocampus, which is an area of the brain associated with memory, increases in volume after exercising. The hippocampus typically shrinks in late adulthood, leading to poorer memory and increased risk for dementia. But regular aerobic exercise can reverse this loss of volume.9 So if you’re forgetting where you left the keys once too often, it might be time to go for a run!

Don’t Worry, Be Happy

We’ve all felt that short burst of euphoria that comes from exercising. Studies also show that aerobic exercising can help with depression and some anxiety disorders. Exercise training may even be clinically effective in treating major depression and panic disorder.10 How does exercise affect depression? Scientists have known for a while now that exercise increases the presence of endorphins, chemicals that improve natural immunity and reduce the perception of pain. Endorphins may also serve to improve mood.

Exercise may also stimulate the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which too can improve mood.11

Get Smart

If you are physically active you’ll be able to pay more attention to what you’re doing and process more information quickly. Many studies indicate that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise than in people who don’t. No wonder then that children who exercise do better in school.12

Balance Yourself

Exercise might also improve your fine motor skills and balance. Cerebellum, the area of the brain that is associated with muscle tone, balance, and movement coordination, seems to respond to exercise. In fact, physical therapy is commonly recommended to help people with cerebellar dysfunction or damage.

Healthy Body, Happy Mind

If strenuous exercise is not for you or you can’t find a smog-free stretch of road for a walk or run, yoga might be the right option for you. Research has found that practicing yoga can improve cognitive functions such as remote memory, mental balance, attention and concentration, delayed and immediate recall, and verbal retention.13 In fact, a study that compared the benefits of walking and yoga found that yoga increased thalamic GABA (a neurotransmitter that is involved in communication between brain cells) levels significantly and was associated with greater improvements in mood and anxiety when compared to walking.14

Exercising regularly is good for both the body and the mind. But from Aristotle to Buddha, all great men extol the virtues of moderation. So don’t go overboard with exercise. The rush that you get from a workout can be addictive and pushing yourself too hard can spell trouble for your body. On the other hand, regular moderate exercise can make you healthy and happy!

References   [ + ]

1.Bherer, Louis, Kirk I. Erickson, and Teresa Liu-Ambrose. “A review of the effects of physical activity and exercise on cognitive and brain functions in older adults.” Journal of aging research 2013 (2013).
2.Wrann, Christiane D., James P. White, John Salogiannnis, Dina Laznik-Bogoslavski, Jun Wu, Di Ma, Jiandie D. Lin, Michael E. Greenberg, and Bruce M. Spiegelman. “Exercise induces hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 pathway.” Cell metabolism 18, no. 5 (2013): 649-659.
3.Prakash, Ruchika Shaurya, Erin M. Snook, Robert W. Motl, and Arthur F. Kramer. “Aerobic fitness is associated with gray matter volume and white matter integrity in multiple sclerosis.” Brain research 1341 (2010): 41-51.
4.Passos, Giselle Soares, Dalva Poyares, Marcos Gonçalves Santana, Carolina Vicaria Rodrigues D’Aurea, Shawn D. Youngstedt, Sergio Tufik, and Marco Túlio de Mello. “Effects of moderate aerobic exercise training on chronic primary insomnia.” Sleep medicine 12, no. 10 (2011): 1018-1027.
5.Morita, Emi, Makoto Imai, Masako Okawa, Tomiyasu Miyaura, and Soichiro Miyazaki. “A before and after comparison of the effects of forest walking on the sleep of a community-based sample of people with sleep complaints.” BioPsychoSocial medicine 5, no. 1 (2011): 1.
6.Baron, Kelly Glazer, Kathryn J. Reid, and Phyllis C. Zee. “Exercise to improve sleep in insomnia: exploration of the bidirectional effects.” J Clin Sleep Med 9, no. 8 (2013): 819-824.
7.Medina, José A., Turibio LB Netto, Mauro Muszkat, Afonso C. Medina, Denise Botter, Rogério Orbetelli, Luzia FC Scaramuzza, Elaine G. Sinnes, Márcio Vilela, and Mônica C. Miranda. “Exercise impact on sustained attention of ADHD children, methylphenidate effects.” ADHD Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorders 2, no. 1 (2010): 49-58.
8.Nagamatsu, Lindsay S., Alison Chan, Jennifer C. Davis, B. Lynn Beattie, Peter Graf, Michelle W. Voss, Devika Sharma, and Teresa Liu-Ambrose. “Physical activity improves verbal and spatial memory in older adults with probable mild cognitive impairment: a 6-month randomized controlled trial.” Journal of aging research 2013 (2013).
9.Erickson, Kirk I., Michelle W. Voss, Ruchika Shaurya Prakash, Chandramallika Basak, Amanda Szabo, Laura Chaddock, Jennifer S. Kim et al. “Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 108, no. 7 (2011): 3017-3022.
10.Ströhle, Andreas. “Physical activity, exercise, depression and anxiety disorders.” Journal of neural transmission 116, no. 6 (2009): 777-784.
11.Understanding Depression. Harvard Medical School, Harvard Health Publications.
12.Roberts, Christian K., Benjamin Freed, and William J. McCarthy. “Low aerobic fitness and obesity are associated with lower standardized test scores in children.” The Journal of pediatrics 156, no. 5 (2010): 711-718.
13.Chattha, R., R. Nagarathna, V. Padmalatha, and H. R. Nagendra. “Effect of yoga on cognitive functions in climacteric syndrome: a randomised control study.” BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology 115, no. 8 (2008): 991-1000.
14.Streeter, Chris C., Theodore H. Whitfield, Liz Owen, Tasha Rein, Surya K. Karri, Aleksandra Yakhkind, Ruth Perlmutter et al. “Effects of yoga versus walking on mood, anxiety, and brain GABA levels: a randomized controlled MRS study.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 16, no. 11 (2010): 1145-1152.
CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

CureJoy Editorial

The CureJoy Editorial team digs up credible information from multiple sources, both academic and experiential, to stitch a holistic health perspective on topics that pique our readers' interest.

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