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:
- Researchers found that a single 20-minute workout can produce mood benefits lasting as long as 12 hours.
- One study from Penn State University found people who worked out that day were more productive and happier.
- Exercise reduces stress and anxiety by increasing soothing brain chemicals, like endorphins and GABA.
- An 11-year Harvard study found that adults over 50 with psychological well-being, measured by positive emotions and optimism, were more likely to be physically active.
- Even strength training can have lasting cognitive benefits.
- One study found that exercising at a moderate intensity for just two hours per week increased volume in the parts of the brain that control memory and thinking.
- Many studies show that exercising regularly helps protect both brain and memory health as you age.
- Exercising leads to better sleep which greatly helps your brain health.
- Exercise promotes neurogenesis and neuroplasticity, the production of new neurons, and the connctions between neurons.
- Physical activity that combines complex thinking with aerobic exercises, like ballroom dancing or tennis, is going to be of the most benefit to your brain and body. Some of the strongest brain benefits are seen in swimming.
- Most of us have heard of the “runner’s high” caused by feel-good hormones called endorphins. Any exercise can stimulate endorphin release. Even stretching and yoga.
- One study suggests that the role exercise plays in maintaining insulin and body mass index levels helps protect brain volume and stave off dementia.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.