Few can argue the benefits of exercise—it makes us stronger, healthier, and adds years to our lives. In addition to promoting well-defined muscles and slimmer waistlines, exercise is also one of the most important things a person can do to promote psychological well-being and overall happiness.
Many discussions involving the brain-boosting effects of exercise involve the word ‘endorphins.’ These are a group of chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and resemble opiate drugs such as morphine (Levinthal 2008), which is no coincidence—heightened moods during and after exercise are very similar to the sensations outlined by people describing drug or trance states (Dietrich and McDaniel 2004). In times of stress or pain, such as a strenuous workout, endorphins block the transmission of pain impulses to the brain and create an elevated mood (McGovern 2005). Researchers in a 2008 study of ‘runner’s high,’ or the euphoric state often described by endurance athletes, scanned runners’ brains before and after long runs, revealing that sustained exercise promoted the release of endorphins in brain regions where emotional processing occurs (Boecker et al. 2008).
In addition to the short-term positive effects of a workout such as runner’s high, exercise has powerful long term effects in terms of depression and overall mental health. Several large-scale studies have shown that people who exercise moderate amounts every week were less anxious, depressed, and neurotic, and had higher levels of general well-being than more sedentary participants (Hassmén et al. 2000, De Moor et al. 2006). Exercise does even more than elevate mood and alleviate depression; it can actually promote changes in the brain through neurogenesis, or the creation of new brain cells. These brain cells, called neurons, appear in the hippocampus, the brain structure in charge of learning and memory (McGovern 2005). Laboratory studies have shown more complex networks of neurons among subjects who exercise regularly than those who don’t (Comery et al. 1996). One possible reason for this could be a protein that promotes growth in the hippocampus after mild stresses associated with exercise (Mattson et al. 2004). Additional animal studies have also shown that this protein could be partially responsible for the positive effect of exercise on depression (Zheng et al. 2006).
Exercise can combat the symptoms of an aging brain. Beginning at age 30, the human brain begins to lose nerve tissue. Since exercise creates more complex networks in the brain, it could serve a preventive role for brain disorders that progress through loss of neurons, such as Alzheimer’s disease (McGovern 2005). Regular physical activity can reduce the risk of dementia by 28% and Alzheimer’s by 45% (Hamer and Chida 2009), and also reduce cognitive decline in the older population at large. Older adults who exercise regularly experience significant improvements in tasks such as planning, inhibition, and working memory (Kramer et al. 1999). A study of patients already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease found that those involved in a care plan including 60 minutes of exercise per week showed lower rates of institutionalization after two years (Teri et al. 2003).
Researchers have sought the perfect dose of exercise for maximum benefits. People reap rewards from any amount, but more seems to be better (Trivedi et al. 2011), and high- and low-intensity are equally effective (King et al. 1993). Clinicians generally recommend moderate-intensity exercise for at least 150 minutes per week (Trivedi et al. 2011). Exercise is a powerful tool in maintaining a healthy lifestyle for both the mind and the body.
By Alycia Parnell
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Articles by Alycia Parnell.