I’m sure we can all agree that exercising regularly is an important part of living a healthy life. Exercising is considered an important aspect of maintaining a healthy weight and BMI (Body Mass Index), strengthening the heart and increasing bone density.
However, the benefits of exercise on the brain don’t get enough attention. And as you’ve come to my website, you’ll probably have picked up that I’m all about the brain!
Here are some lesser known benefits for the brain of regularly doing exercises:
Encourage the growth of new brain cells
Exercise promotes the release of BDNF - Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factors. BDNF is a chemical compound released in the brain that encourages the growth of more ‘baby’ neurons or brain cells, particularly in the hippocampus, the area of the brain where memories are made and kept. The hippocampus is also vital for learning new facts and recent research has discovered that it is also an area of the brain that is vital for complex decision making.
Atrophy or shrinking of the hippocampus is associated strongly with mental decline and subsequent development of dementia.
BDNF is mainly released when doing aerobic exercise. Any exercise that causes the heart and breathing rate to increase and gets you sweaty falls into the category of aerobic exercise.
Forms of aerobic exercise include: Running, jogging, fast paced walking, cycling, swimming, spin classes, Zumba, aqua aerobics, strenuous dancing.
Reduce feelings of anxiety and depression
Exercising changes the parts of the brain that control anxiety and depression. It increases brain sensitivity to a few major neurotransmitters – serotonin, norepinephrine, GABA and endocannabinoids- which results in increased feelings of pleasure and calmness.
Even doing as much as 10 minutes of continuous mild to moderate intensity exercise has been shown to get these beneficial effects. When doing more intense exercise, endorphins are released in the brain which produce positive feelings, sometimes known as the ‘runner’s high’.
Forms of mood improving exercise include: Jogging, fast paced walking, cycling, aqua aerobics, Zumba and mixed exercise circuits
Increase alertness, focus and concentration
When you exercise, your heart pumps faster and harder. This leads to an increase in blood circulation and oxygenation to the brain.
However, it’s not just about increased blood circulation.
When we are sedentary and don’t move our whole bodies for long periods of time, our brains receive less sensory input from our joints and muscles (our sense of proprioception, which is our ability to know where our body parts are in space without looking), inner ear (vestibular system) and dynamic vision (because our eyes are only moving a small amount while staring at a screen or keyboard for prolonged periods of time).
Unfortunately, this is something that’s happening more and more in our desk and screen based work environments. As a result of this reduced whole body movement, overall brain activity levels also drop.
When you do whole body movements, the various senses send electrical impulses to the different areas of your brain, thus increasing overall brain activity.
So, if you want to increase your alertness, focus and concentration, you must get moving. Even if you don’t have the physical space or time to do formal exercise or get out for a walk, just having regular, hourly movement breaks can really wake up your senses and therefore, your brain.
Forms of exercise that increases alertness, focus and concentration include: Short bursts of energetic movement (movement breaks), doing short sprints, a brisk 10 minute walk, body weight resistance exercises and HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training)
Improve balance and coordination
Certain types of exercises activate the cerebellum, the part of your brain that sits at the back of your head. As well as being the master controller of coordination, the cerebellum also acts as the ‘dimmer switch’ for controlling core activity and tone.
Have you noticed that your posture gets progressively more slouched the longer you sit at the computer or on the sofa watching tv? It’s partly because the cerebellum becomes less active when you’re not moving and the dimmer switch for your ‘core’ gets gradually turned down. This is why people who lead a sedentary lifestyle appear to be ‘floppy’ especially in the middle (back and abdominal areas) even if they don’t have much belly fat.
If your core isn’t strong and active, it makes moving your limbs in complex or new patterns incredibly challenging. So, having an underactive and understimulated cerebellum causes a double negative effect on your balance and coordination skills. It has also been discovered that some people with vertigo have underactive cerebellums.
In the long term, you’re more likely to fall and injure yourself. This is why improving your balance and coordination is a vital part of staying healthy.
Forms of exercise that improve coordination and core stability include: dancing, martial arts, ball sports (football, basketball etc, yoga, Pilates and racket sports (tennis, badminton and table tennis).
In addition to being a qualified Health Coach, I am also a qualified Physiotherapist and I can give professional guidance on suitable forms of exercises that you would benefit from.
If you’re struggling to get more physically active or to fit some exercise into your life for whatever reason, and would like to know how working with me will help you overcome your barriers to exercising, click here to arrange a FREE 30 minute Health Exploratory Call with me.