If it was a pill, exercise would be prescribed to every person and for nearly every ailment. According to the World Health Organization, physical inactivity is the fourth leading cause of death. We’ve known for a long time that exercise has unparalleled power to improve a person’s physical health. And because your body and mind are integrally connected, it is also excellent for your brain and, in turn, your mental health.

The Science Proving Exercise Is Brain Medicine

The science is abundant and overwhelmingly clear that exercise improves many facets of brain and mental health:

Exercise Is the Best Way to Prevent Stress From Harming Your Brain

On a biological level, stress is a normal physical response that happens when you ask your body to adapt or respond in some way. Stress is an essential part of living. Technically, you are stressing your body when you ask it to get up out of a chair, learn a new skill, or go for a run. When you allow your brain and neurons to recover from stress, neurons strengthen connections which leads to neural pathways getting stronger. However, when stress is an almost constant state and chronic condition with no period of recovery, it has negative, lasting consequences for your brain and body.

With stress being an unavoidable part of life, the answer then is not to try to get rid of it. The solution is to change the way you handle it. Physical activity is a natural way to prevent the negative consequences of stress. You can prevent and repair the damaging effects of stress on your brain by moving your body.

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How to Effectively Use Exercise as an Antidepressant

You can incorporate regular exercise into your life as an effective preventative and treatment for depression. One Harvard study showed that exercise is every bit as powerful as medication for treating the symptoms and root causes of depression. Another meta-analysis said this:

The mechanisms underlying the antidepressant effects of exercise remain in debate; however, the efficacy of exercise in decreasing symptoms of depression has been well established. Data regarding the positive mood effects of exercise involvement, independent of fitness gains, suggest that the focus should be on frequency of exercise rather than duration or intensity until the behavior has been well established. The addition of self-monitoring techniques may increase awareness of the proximal benefits of exercise involvement, which is generally reinforcing to the patient.”

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Exercise Is Mind Medicine

Eight Ways Walking Improves Your Brain

Fortunately, the level of physical activity required to get brain benefits is not that high. It might surprise you to hear that something as simple as walking has significant health benefits. It doesn’t even have to be power walking. Just a 30-minute walk can have a positive impact on your brain.

Thirty minutes of walking, That’s doable enough, isn’t it?

This information relieves me because I find myself walking more and more for exercise over the past couple of years during the pandemic and as I age. In fact, I track my daily steps and have become militant about not falling below a certain average. Here are eight specific ways science shows walking helps your brain.

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How To Work Your Brain In Your Workout (and why it matters)

If you exercise in ways that disengage your brain from actively participating, you’re getting the physical benefits of increased blood flow and oxygen to the brain and the release of feel-good, stress-reducing neurochemicals, but you’re losing out on major opportunities for mental gains.

While doing anything physical is better than sitting on the couch, using exercise machines that involve a limited range of identical, repetitive movements takes your brain offline, asking very little of it. Doing the same thing again and again, in life and in your fitness routine, is the enemy of brain health and physical neurological movement, flexibility, and control. It’s like asking your brain to solve the identical crossword puzzle a hundred times.

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Exercise Is Mind Medicine

Exercise: The Fountain Of Youth For Your Brain and Body

Along with getting enough sleep, physical exercise is one of the absolute best things you can do for your brain and mental health. So much evidence has accumulated that physical exercise is a miracle potion for getting and keeping the brain healthy at any age. Research has even shown that moderate exercise, such as walking at a comfortable pace three times a week, can enhance the connectivity of brain circuits, combat the decline in function associated with aging, and increase performance on cognitive tasks.

I would encourage you not to feel like you have to “exercise” — unless you want to. Just think about moving your body. You don’t have to go to the gym, wear special exercise clothes, or use specific equipment. Just move. Gardening, dancing, vacuuming, climbing the stairs — it all counts.

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2 Comments

  1. My husband is a big workout fan and has been since he was a teenager. Me, not so much. But like you Debbie, I do understand the power of exercise to keep not just our bodies and brain healthy but also our outlook on life.

    Also, like you I too became a walker some years ago after I read some scientific articles on the benefits of simply walking, as you say for twenty minutes a day. On the days I can’t get outside, I manage to get my time in by walking around the house. Not nearly so interesting, but it does still allow for a walking meditation, adding to the health benefits.

    Thanks for the reminder.

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