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Do it for your Brain

Do it for your Brain

Most Americans know that exercise improves weight, blood pressure, sleep, and stamina. But what many people don’t realize is that one of the biggest benefits of exercise is what it does for our brains.

John J. Ratey, author of “Spark; The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” explains some of the many ways exercise makes our brain function at its best; by elevating our stress threshold to stave off anxiety, boosting motivation, lifting our mood and fostering neuroplasticity, which reverses some of the effects of aging in the brain.

Exercise strengthens brain skills.
It’s no coincidence that studies from the California Department of Education have consistently demonstrated that students with higher fitness scores also have higher test scores. In his book, Ratey explains that going for a run “is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin” because using your muscles produces proteins that play important roles in our highest thought processes.
And exercise doesn’t just help your cognitive skills during, or immediately after, your workout. As Ratey explains it, exercise strengthens the connections between neurons, and the more you practice, the more the circuit develops definition. He compares it to wearing down a path through a forest.

In 2004, a panel of researchers reviewed 850 studies on physical activity in schools. They found that exercise had a positive influence on memory, concentration and classroom behavior. The bad news is that only six percent of U.S. high schools offer a daily P.E. class, and a good share of children and teens are not getting regular exercise outside of school. American kids spend an average of 5.5 hours a day in front of a screen of some sort.

The takeaway: Students should try to schedule their hardest class right after gym. Adults should take on their more cognitively challenging tasks––like balancing their checkbooks––after their workouts. Schools and parents need to find more ways to incorporate regular fitness into children’s lives.

Exercise boosts mood.
There are actually several ways exercise can improve your emotional state. It can increase serotonin, a lack of which is associated with depression. It can increase dopamine, which helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure center. It can increase norepinephrine, which – among many other tasks – can increase the brain’s oxygen supply and suppress inflammation in the central nervous system. Exercise also teaches your body that heavy breathing and an increased heart rate doesn’t necessarily mean you’re having a panic attack. For most people, the more you exercise, the lower your level of anxiety.

For many depressed people, getting motivated to exercise is a challenge in itself. But the end result more than makes up for the need to push through the initial resistance. In 2000, researchers at Duke University found that exercise and Zoloft had about the same effect at treating clinical depression. But even more impressive were their results on the long-term impact: Exercise beat Zoloft at warding off the symptoms long after the depression lifted.

Exercise also helps by reversing some of the damage caused by stress eroding the connections between neurons. Regular aerobic exercise primes the brain by activating genes that produce proteins to protect the cells against disease and damage. As Ratey explains it, exercise calms the body by relaxing the resting tension of muscle spindles, which in turn disrupts the stress-feedback loop to the brain. In essence, exercise stresses the brain just enough to prep our bodies for the big stressors in life.

The takeaway: Try boosting your mood with exercise before reaching for that sugary food, alcohol or pill.

Exercise fights the effects of aging.
People that exercise regularly not only live longer, but also tend to have larger volumes of gray and white matter in their brains (which fight cognitive decline) and are less likely to develop white matter lesions (which are linked to cognitive decline).

According to Ratey, dopamine decreases with age. But again, exercise helps boost dopamine. And because dopamine helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure center, as well as its motivation systems, a decrease in dopamine can lead to apathy. Sadly, apathy is a common characteristic among the elderly – especially those who move into retirement communities and nursing homes – because combined with depression; it can lead the elderly to feel as though they’re just waiting to die. In other words, exercise can help keep the elderly positive, hopeful and motivated.

The takeaway: Physical exercise may be just as important as mental exercise in fighting the effects of age-related decline, especially in the elderly.

Bottom line, regular exercise is not only good for the body, it is an absolute necessity to prevent or delay the onset of cognitive decline, dementia and Alzheimer’s. It should also be a first line of defense to address insomnia, depression, anxiety and weak cognitive skills.

Want to learn more?
On March 8, Eden Prairie Disability Awareness Committee, along with the City of Eden Prairie and Eden Prairie Community Education is hosting a free event titled “Movement: Powering Mental Health.” It will include guest speakers, activities, and a resource fair.

The event runs 9am to 12pm at the Eden Prairie Community Center and includes guest speakers, activities and a resource fair. The event is suitable for all ages and geared towards educating individuals on the mental health benefits of exercise, demonstrating sample exercises, and helping make exercise part of the daily routine. In addition, KARE 11’s Health Fair 11 “Q”mmunity mobile will be on site offering health screenings for glucose, cholesterol, weight, and BMI. Visit for complete details.