When it comes to getting a mental edge, developing an exercise habit is the way to go.
You know from experience that a tough workout can make you feel on top of the world. You also might have noticed that hitting the gym offers a great chance to work through problems. And of course, it’s the perfect opportunity to blow off steam from life’s daily stressors. Despite this, few people realize how deep the brain benefits of exercise go.
Not only will exercise protect you from aging-associate cognitive decline and debilitating brain disorders like Alzheimer’s, but a regular workout habit improves how your brain processes information, paying off in terms of better grades and a higher salary. Some research indicates exercise even increases IQ, and it appears to teach people to focus better and avoid distractions. It also builds self-esteem, counters anxiety, and prevents depression.
What is most interesting is how the brain undergoes both structural (an increase in blood vessels and brain neurons) and psychological (how you think, problem solve, and react to stress) adaptations to optimize function. It also changes brain chemistry and increases insulin sensitivity so that the brain is more efficient and experiences less oxidative stress that damages brain cells.
If this isn’t enough to convince you to hit the gym, this article will persuade you by highlighting the profound effects exercise has on the brain.
For this article, we are going to break the brain benefits of exercise into four categories. The categories overlap somewhat, but this method helps you to better understand the benefits of a proper fitness program on your brain health.
#1: Cognitive Benefits
Cognitive function is responsible for memory, learning, and intelligence, and it is determined by the brain control center, which manages all the tasks in a person's life, such as writing an article, designing a long-term workout program, or organizing a trip.
It includes skills such as being able to control your emotions when under stress, having will power, the ability to persevere when the going gets tough, and being able to tune out distractions. These are the fundamental brain abilities that everyone wishes they could enhance. They also are the first lost with aging or diseases that impact the brain.
This is one reason that most of the research in this area has been done on older adults who are at risk of cognitive decline. The brain atrophies with age, literally shrinking in size and number of active neurons, but exercise has a preventative effect.
For example, adults with a history of aerobic exercise had better white matter integrity in their brains than a sedentary control group. White matter is responsible for the transmission of information in your brain. Having more of it means your brain is more efficient in relaying information to different parts. How does this happen?
One theory has to do with the hormone release we experience with exercise. In one study, endurance exercise led to the release of a hormone called irisin that boosts expression of a “brain-health” protein called BDNF that acts in the part of the brain that is involved in learning and memory. BDNF promotes the development of new nerves and synapses. The effect can be seen with a study that found that 6 months of aerobic training allowed elderly individuals to score better on recall, reaction time, and spatial memory tests that consisted of remembering a list of 15 random words and the location of dots on a computer screen.
In younger populations, the research is limited, but we do know that the more active children are, the better they learn and score on intelligence IQ tests. In college students, reaction time and vocabulary learning are faster immediately after intense running. Additionally, the more frequently students exercise is associated with better academic performance and higher grade point averages in college.
#2: Psychological Benefits
One of the coolest effects of a fitness routine is how it improves mood and combats your experience of stress. Not only is exercise a great treatment for depression, but it trains you to be more resilient in tough situations and even increases happiness. This might surprise you since exercise is a physically stressful activity. So, how does it work?
First, you get the release of feel-good endorphins that are associated with what is known as a “runners high.” Endorphins are actually natural, mild opioids that are released in the brain in response to intense exercise and they have a stress-lowering effect, triggering a drop in the stress hormone cortisol.
Second, exercise has a long-lasting effect on mood, making it the perfect tool for treating and preventing depression. Exercise increases blood flow to the brain and changes brain chemistry, leading to the release of dopamine, GABA, and glutamate, all of which can have a positive impact on mood.
One review showed that a regular exercise routine alleviated both mild and moderate forms of depression. In another review, exercise was found to be just as effective as anti-depressants for fighting depression. A related benefit of exercise is less anxiety and higher self-esteem. One large-scale review found that the more physically fit an individual was, the higher their feelings of self-worth. The largest benefits from exercise on self-esteem were for those who experienced significant changes in fitness level or those participating in lifestyle programs that incorporated other healthy habits like diet and sleep as opposed to skill training.
The best news may be that your efforts in the gym will pay off in terms of happiness. One study that compiled data from 15 European countries found that higher levels of activity correlated with a greater degree of happiness. A Canadian study tracked people over a 15-year period and found that leisure time physical activity was linked with happiness, whereas people who grew less active were twice as likely to be unhappy. Researchers concluded that a change in the amount of time spent in fitness activities was associated with mood status.
#3: Neurobiological Benefits
If you’re like most people, you rarely think about how complex an organ your brain is. In fact, it is this incredibly complex organization of structures (blood vessels and neurons) that is bathed in a sea of neurochemicals. Exercise enhances the physical hardware and supplies it with fuel so that it can operate at the highest level.
Chances are, you’ve felt mentally and physically exhausted after a tough day at work and considered bagging your workout. But you went ahead and powered through it, finding yourself completely rejuvenated at the end. How does this happen?
The combination of endorphins and energizing neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine will reduce fatigue and leave you feeling upbeat. It’s not just an increase in brain chemicals: Animal experiments suggest that exercise actually reorganizes the structure of the brain to react differently during fatigue or stress. Instead of succumbing to these negative feelings, studies suggest that in response to exercise, the brain releases a neurotransmitter that reduces the level of anxiety when exposed to stress. Researchers consider it a neuro-level coping mechanism that can improve your ability to make good decisions and exert self-control throughout the day.
#4: Lifestyle Benefits
The exciting thing about exercise is that all these adaptations we’ve talked about pay off in terms of lifestyle habits that make your life more successful and enjoyable. Exercise changes how we work through problems, react to stress, and come up with new ideas. It also kickstarts healthier behaviors, with studies showing people who get their gym on frequently eat and sleep better and are more active in daily life.
A revealing study from Michigan State shows how exercise impacts daily life. In a 2-year study of freshman, those with gym memberships were less likely to drop out of college than non-exercisers. Exercise pays off in terms of career success as well. A large study of more than 5,000 twins from Finland that those who exercised more earned more money over a 15- year period. Physically active participants had incomes 14 to 17 percent higher than less active twins.
Researchers believe exercise enhances a person’s performance at work by improving their perseverance when facing obstacles. It increases their desire to partake in competitive situations. Goal oriented behaviors have been linked to exercising, and of course, the cognitive boost we get from exercise may play a role as well.
The ramifications of this data go beyond recognizing that training is good for your brain. It shows that people who value their fitness are more likely to develop habits in their best interests, persevere through difficulty, and reach goals for greater personal and professional success.
Tips For Getting The Brain Benefits of Exercise
Incorporate Conditioning & Strength Training
Both conditioning and strength exercise have benefits for the brain, though the effects are unique, so best results will come from a program that incorporates both. For example, you could do strength training 4 days a week to strengthen the brain—muscle connection for better physical performance. Perform some form of conditioning on the other days of the week, either in the form of interval training or moderate aerobic exercise.
Be Active In Daily Life
Spontaneous physical activity outside of regularly planned exercise will boost your brain by improving insulin sensitivity, blood flow, and gene signaling. Anything that breaks up sedentary time, whether it’s doing chores, running errands, playing with the kids, or walking the dog will pay off with brain benefits.
Train In The Morning
Exercising in the morning ensures you get your workout in and it spikes brain activity and prepares you for the mental stresses of the rest of the day. Because it boosts the release of brain chemicals, it also may increase retention of new material and set you up for better reactions in complex situations.
Periodize Your Training
Doing the same thing week after week without end leads to diminishing returns for your body and brain. Mix up your workouts every 3 to 6 weeks by increasing your weights, changing your exercises, or altering lifting tempo. Incorporating new forms of activity into your routine will also benefit the brain: Try yoga, do tai chi, go dancing, or add pilates.
The biggest obstacle most busy people have is finding time and being consistent with their workouts. Studies show that individuals who show up and get the work done reap the greatest rewards when it comes to physical and psychological adaptations. Insulin sensitivity, improvements in brain chemistry, and reduction of inflammation are all linked to volume and frequency of exercise.