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13 Psychological Benefits of Exercise: On The Brain

Do you get enough exercise? We live in a culture that has become increasingly sedentary. Back when our ancestors were cavemen, they had to hunt for food, walk long distances, and build things, using their primal strength. The problem has become that many people make excuses to not exercise and actually criticize and/or put down people that go to the gym a lot. What’s ironic is that not only is exercise an effective way to help you improve your physical performance, it’s also one of the best ways to boost your brain power.

It is quite common for people to stereotype individuals as being dumb for going to the gym a lot. We often hear terms of “meatheads” used to describe people that engage in strength training and “dumb jocks” in regards to individuals who compete in sports. It turns out that the so called “meatheads” and “dumb jocks” may be smarter than you think. In fact, they may not only be better looking than average, research suggests that they may also be physically and psychologically healthier than sedentary individuals. Below are some of the major cognitive and psychological benefits associated with regular exercise.

Psychological Benefits of Exercise: On the Brain

1. Prevents cognitive decline

One of the biggest psychological benefits as a result of exercise is that it prevents cognitive decline. As people age, their brains tend to become less sharp and neurodegeneration can set in. In people with dementia, exercise has a moderate effect on their ability to perform activities of daily living. Researchers suggest that it improves cognitive function. Studies show that individuals that don’t take care of their cardiovascular health are significantly more likely (up to 8x as likely) to develop dementia.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24617099
Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24604561

2. Neuroprotective agent

It has been shown that individuals that develop Parkinson’s disease end up losing significant numbers of dopamine neurons as a result of neurotoxins. One of the most effective ways at protecting your brain from falling victim to neurotoxicity is to exercise. Exercising regularly has been shown to have a clear neuroprotective effect on the brain. And there is some evidence to show that there is a possibility that it may prevent people from falling victim to certain neurodegenerative diseases.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24262162

3. Anxiety and stress reduction

Anxiety can be menacing to deal with – it can impair cognitive functioning and make us more prone to isolation. No one likes feeling nervous and/or anxious all the time. It sucks to feel overwhelmed in social situations with stress and that tense feeling in the pit of your stomach.

Well one way to help yourself overcome and/or cope with your anxiety is to exercise. Exercise, particularly aerobic activity, has been shown to reduce both anxiety and your sensitivity to stress. As was mentioned before, it is considered one of the most effective natural cures for anxiety disorders – exercise can play a key role in helping people with anxiety cope with their condition and in some cases, overcome it.

Source: https://ulib.derby.ac.uk/ecdu/CourseRes/dbs/currissu/Salmon_P.pdf

4. Antidepressant effect

If you are depressed, one way to help yourself overcome the blues is to exercise. Even individuals that have severe, major depression can benefit from exercise. It gives people a sense of accomplishment and reduces unnecessary stress in the brain. In addition, the fact that aerobic exercise often boosts production of endorphins and vital neurotransmitters like dopamine can make us feel good about ourselves. In a society that has become lazy and obese, it is no wonder why so many people are depressed – in part this is due to an extreme lack of exercise.  Exercise is clearly one of the top natural cures for depression.

Source: https://ulib.derby.ac.uk/ecdu/CourseRes/dbs/currissu/Salmon_P.pdf

5. Boost IQ (Intelligence)

It has been shown that young adults who exercise experience an increase in intelligence scores compared to people who don’t. If you want to be as smart as possible, you should consider implementing a regular exercise program in your life. Don’t smart people take care of their physical and mental health to the best of their ability? Some people are naturally smart, but if you want to maximize your intelligence, the scientific research suggests that exercise could help.  For further reading, check out 11 Ways to Increase Your IQ.

Source: http://www.pnas.org/content/106/49/20906

6. Improve learning and memory

In most studies regarding exercise and learning, it was found that people who get more exercise tend to be quicker learners. It is well understood that exercise improves overall cognitive function. Researchers have gone on to study how long people are able to reap the improvements in learning and memory following exercise. Mice showed the greatest mental performance benefits in learning and memory immediately upon completion of the exercise. It also has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus – which could allow for increased memory storage.

Exercise improves memory mostly due to the fact that it increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) – a protein that plays a major role in memory formation and storage. Even after 2 weeks following exercise, mice still showed mental benefits from their exercise two weeks prior. Research suggests that the beneficial effects from exercise eventually return to baseline by 3 to 4 weeks. This suggests that regular exercise in mice improves their ability to learn mazes and remember things. Similar effects are hypothesized for the brains of humans.

Source: http://www.jneurosci.org/content/25/38/8680.short
Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223607001786
Source: http://www.pnas.org/content/108/7/3017.short

7. Increase creativity

In a study by Steinberg et al. (1997), exercise was found to enhance creativity independently of mood. The study used 63 participants and had some participants partake in an aerobic workout, while others did no exercise or were “neutral.” The research also took into account “mood” which was measured using a list of adjectives.

Creative thinking was tested by three measures of the Torrance Test of Creative Thinking (TTCT). The research demonstrated that mood and creativity improved independently of each other as a result of aerobic exercise. So want to come up with the next billion dollar genius invention? Exercising may help.

Source: http://bjsportmed.com/content/31/3/240.full.pdf

8. Neurogenesis: Growth of new brain cells

Although living in an enriched environment has been shown to have beneficial effects on the brain, aerobic exercise also plays a crucial role. In fact, one study suggests that aerobic exercise is the single most important variable in an “enriched environment” that leads to hippocampal increases in production of new neurons. At this time it is poorly understood as to whether production of new neurons is of any benefit, but most researchers imply that it is healthy.  If you are interested in learning more about neurogenesis, read about some ways to grow new brain cells.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22698691

9. Prevents addiction

In rats, exercise has been shown to help prevent addiction to amphetamines. In many addiction treatment programs, exercise can play a crucial role in recovery. Exercise often releases feel good chemicals in the brain and gives people a healthy alternative to addictions. In fact, there is evidence that some people enjoy exercise so much that they actually become addicted. Exercise addiction is a real thing. As long as exercise does not become excessive, it can be an extremely rewarding and helpful activity for addicts.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21886560

10. Increase pain threshold

In a 2010 study conducted by Cohen et al., the endorphins released as a result of exercise created a mild sense of euphoria that increased pain tolerance. In the case of this particular research, it was found that a team of rowers (rowing in synchrony) actually experienced a heightened endorphin response as a result of synchronous rowing activity. Not only could exercise increase your pain threshold as a result of your body’s biological response, additional research suggests that regular exercise can actually change an individual’s perception of pain.

Source: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19755532
Source: http://www.painjournalonline.com/article/S0304-3959(12)00142-X/abstract

11. Improves attention

Do you struggle with attention? Many people are unable to calm down and cannot stay focused as a result of stress and anxiety. Other individuals aren’t getting the proper neurotransmitters that they need for optimal mental functioning. In order to increase your ability to pay attention, it is suggested that you do your best to get adequate physical exercise.

It is hypothesized to improve connections between the cerebellum and prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is heavily involved in tasks involving attention, organization, and higher learning. The research was conducted in adolescents, but the results can likely be generalized.

Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0304394008008483

12. Reduces oxidative stress

Oxidative damage to the brain can be a result of toxicity within the brain. In humans oxidative stress has been thought to lead to a number of unfavorable conditions including: Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue syndrome, and even cancer. In order to help reduce oxidative stress and prevent it from damaging the brain, it is recommended to exercise. Research suggests that in rats that have experienced oxidative damage, aerobic exercise such as swimming can help repair the brain and improve overall cognitive functioning.

Source: http://tf.hu/wp-content/uploads/2009/08/Rad%C3%A1k-Zsolt-NTK-21.pdf

13. Enhances brain plasticity

Plasticity is the ability of our brains to reshape themselves as a result of various activities. In other words, exercise can help us change and/or mold our brain activity to a more beneficial state of functioning. Exercise can have a direct impact on our genetic expression and gene functioning. In other words, it can regulate and mobilize the expression of certain genes. It is thought to have an effect by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).

Source: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0166223602021434

What type of exercise is best for your brain? Aerobic exercise & strength training.

Although many people believe that aerobic exercise is better than others when it comes to brain health, there is evidence that shows strength training (resistance training) can also be of benefit. As long as you are getting a good workout a few times of week, you are doing your brain a favor. Obviously during intense aerobic activity, the brain is stimulated differently than it is by lifting heavy weights.

There are significantly more studies that have been conducted with mice and rats on “wheels” doing aerobic exercise because it is easier than trying to simulate “strength training.” However, there have been studies that involved “resistance” or “weight training” in rats by strapping weights to their tails and having them climb ladders. It was found that this strength training was able to boost memory and problem solving skills in rats just as well as aerobic exercise.

Source: http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/19/phys-ed-brains-and-brawn/

How much exercise is good for the brain?

For maximum benefit, most research suggests that exercise three times (3x) per week is ideal. The best type of exercise for your brain and mental health is aerobic. Getting your heart rate up and moving is what is going to release endorphins and those “feel good” chemicals (neurotransmitters) in your brain. Most people these days don’t exercise at all and they wonder why they feel depressed, stressed, and tense. There are a significant number of psychological benefits to be had from exercising. So the next time you go for a jog, not only could it help improve your physical appearance, it will be helping your brain.

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