Everyone knows at least the basics of how exercise improves physical health in many ways, including cardiovascular health and improved blood flow but what about the brain?
We have known this stuff for decades, but more recent discoveries are revealing that exercise has the capacity to improve mental health as well. An even more critical point to understand is the power of physical exercise to alter the physiology and function of the brain.
Think of the Brain as a Muscle
No, the brain is not a muscle, but it does respond to regular use like muscles. The more you use it, the stronger it will get. The brain is always evolving and adapting to how we use it. For example, a young person’s grey matter who is learning a musical instrument will respond by increasing in mass in various locations throughout the brain.
Every experience, sight, and sound we are exposed to will leave its mark on the brain. A promotion at work or the sting of your first rejection for a date will all alter your grey matter in diverse ways.
Researchers have even shown that experiences can alter our genetic makeup. This ability is probably why humans are so good at shrugging off and recovering from stressful or damaging experiences and getting on with the job.
What Does Exercise Have to Do with the Brain?
The evidence is overwhelming; exercise is good for us, but do you ever wonder why, or how it can deliver so many benefits?
The brain is always active but learning something new. This creates a flurry of activity in neurons triggered by the flood of information. Sometimes, the activity forms new connections in existing neurons, while other experiences will set off the development of brand-new neurons.
Taking medication may induce comparable results, and so can exercise. A bout of vigorous physical activity has a tremendous influence on the grey matter in the brain’s prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain is right behind your forehead and takes care of attention, concentration, decision-making, and personality.
Exercising promotes the production of new cells in the hippocampus, the area deep in the temporal lobe that takes care of long-term memory storage.
New brain cells developing in the hippocampus increase its volume and enhance your long-term memory skills. So, in some respects, exercising for the brain is like upgrading your computer with extra RAM and a bigger hard drive.
The more you exercise, the more improvements you will create in these areas, but it’s even more important than a boost in brain power. Neurodegenerative diseases often affect the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex more than other areas of the brain.
Of course, we’re not saying that exercising will protect you against these diseases, even though age-related conditions like osteoporosis and muscle loss.
How Much Exercise Do You Need for Improved Brain Health?
It’s the age-old question; how much exercise is enough? We are all busy and our time is limited, so how much exercise should you be getting every day? Fortunately, you don’t have to become a gym junky to enjoy its many benefits. Most experts agree that 30 minutes, four or five days a week, is plenty of exercise for the average person.
Pick an activity you enjoy, such as swimming, dancing, hiking, biking, or pickleball. This will make it easier to incorporate activity into your weekly routine.
Sometimes it’s really hard to get motivated to start into a new exercise routine. If you find yourself feeling exhausted, having no energy and no drive to get moving, you may be struggling with depression.
If you are wondering if you may be depressed, consulting a mental health therapist is an excellent first step. Visit this page to learn more: Depression Treatment.