This is your brain on exercise

Carla Linder-Mayer, owner Reality Fitness in Naperville
Carla Linder-Mayer, owner Reality Fitness in Naperville

The most common reasons that clients come in to begin a new exercise program are to feel better, look better, the doctor has recommended an exercise routine or to lose weight.

Could there be another important benefit of incorporating exercise into your day? According to Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” “even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.”

It reverses the detrimental effects of stress — Psychologist studying how exercise affects the brain have found that a 10-minute walk can significantly decrease stress. When we exercise, we increase the levels of “soothing” brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

One of my clients shared with me this week that her 9-year-old daughter was being disrespectful toward her and just as she was about to follow her daughter into her room to begin a confrontation, her husband motioned her to take a few minutes before talking to her daughter.

She angrily dashed outside to take a walk around the block. As she began her walk, her level of stress was obvious to those who might have seen her by the speed and full body movement of her walk … not to mention the obvious conversation that she was having with herself. About halfway around the block she felt her breathing begin to return to normal, her walking slowed down and her self-talk returned to a much more productive thought process of how to handle the situation when she returned home.

It lifts depression: some studies show that an exercise program can work quickly to elevate depressed moods in many people. The results may last several hours, much like taking an aspirin for a headache. A 2010 study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants’ levels of the brain chemical GABA, which typically translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety. Yoga can be used to complement — not substitute — drug treatment for depression, the researchers said.

It improves learning: exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn. Like our muscles, you have to stress your brain cells in order to get them to grow. German researchers also found that complicated movements or interval training increased our ability to learn by challenging our brain with memory, concentration and pattern skills

It builds self-esteem and improves body image: As we see our improvements in form, reps, difficulty and time our confidence increases. When our confidence goes up so does our self-esteem and body image.

It leaves you feeling euphoric: we’ve all heard of the “runner’s high.” There are some that may never experience that “high” but interval training may be an option to feel that euphoric feeling from exercise. I encourage my clients to increase the intensity of their activity for a specified time or distance and then to go back to a regular pace. Repeat this pattern 4-5 times. The increased intensity for short bursts makes us feel strong and powerful.

It keeps the brain fit: Our body’s arteries stiffen with age and the vessel hardening is believed to begin in the aorta — the main vessel coming out of the heart before reaching the brain.

“Indeed, the hardening may contribute to cognitive changes that occur during a similar time frame,” said lead researcher Claudine Gauthier from University of Montreal, Canada.

They found that older adults whose aortas were in a better condition and who had greater aerobic fitness performed better on a cognitive test.

“We think that the preservation of vessel elasticity may be one of the mechanisms that enables exercise to slow cognitive aging,” Gauthier added.

It may keep Alzheimer’s at bay: the Alzheimer’s Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against the disease. Exercise appears to protect the hippocampus, which governs memory and spatial navigation, and is one of the first brain regions to succumb to Alzheimer’s-related damage.

In 2000, Dutch researchers found that inactive men who were genetically prone to Alzheimer’s were four times more likely to develop the disease than those who carried the trait but worked out regularly.

Exercise is for everyone: it is important to find the person or group to help you get started or to develop an exercise program that complements your age, experience and abilities. If you are not sure how to get started or where to go to find a trainer or program, please give me a call at 630-926-1201.

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