How is exercise good for your brain? Almost all of us know that exercise is good for our body, but how is it good for our brain? There are many benefits to our brain of regular aerobic exercise.
Stress is a natural part of life, and is even necessary for learning (see “Are Eustressed?” on this site). But a lot of stress for a long time is very bad for us and exercise helps to reduce stress. In John Ratey’s book “Spark,” he asserts that exercise is as effective as medication and therapy for depression. Let me repeat: exercise is as effective as antidepressant medication and therapy. As you can imagine, combining exercise with therapy is even more effective. Exercise can reduce high blood pressure by as much as 50%, Alzheimer’s risk by 40%, and colon cancer by 60%. No, our colon is not located in our brain, but knowing that we are doing good things for our bodies and our future health can reduce our stress.
Neurotransmitters are the keys to how the brain works, and exercise helps to increase the effective activity of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine. These help us to feel pleasurable feelings, control our anxiety and sleep better, and be more focused. Exercise also stimulates the growth of neurons in the memory center of our brains, which can improve our memory and emotional regulation. While we can see our physical body becoming more toned and muscular, what we don’t see is that our brain is becoming more “buff” as well.
The good feelings about ourselves that come from exercise are brain-based, too. Consider the guy that gets off the couch and starts getting rid of some extra pounds. Far before he becomes an amazing specimen, perhaps even before he sees any significant change at all, he begins to feel better about himself. Or consider the female athlete that retires and becomes depressed. She may still have a superior physique, but the amount of physical activity (and therefore her brain chemistry) has had to adjust to a lower equilibrium, which can contribute to a lower opinion of herself. There are other factors in play, but brain chemistry is a significant source of the changes we go through in these examples.
The upshot is that your personal trainer is helping to improve your brain, and if you are in counseling or considering counseling to change some behavior, exercising can help to improve the outcome whether you are quitting a substance, dealing with bipolar disorder, or reducing anxiety or depression. Get the benefits of better brain balance by adding exercise to your therapy regimen!