After working out, you may find yourself in a better mood and able to think more clearly. If so, that’s not a coincidence — these are some of the benefits of exercise to your brain.
Dr. Panteleimon Ekkekakis, a professor of kinesiology at Iowa State University, says exercise influences all major parts and functions of the brain.
At the university’s Exercise Psychology Laboratory, Ekkekakis conducts research specifically related to the effects of exercise on emotion (mood, feeling, attitude) and cognition (learning, understanding, memory). Here are some of the lab’s findings — and what they mean for you.
Emotional benefits of exercise
Exercise can help fight depression.
Working out can benefit your mental health. Serotonin, a chemical that transmits messages between nerve cells, is also known as “the happy chemical.”
“The current theory is that depression reflects deficits in serotonin,” Ekkekakis says. “As it turns out, exercise naturally increases the amount of serotonin in the brain, essentially mimicking the effects of drugs used to treat the deficiency.”
In fact, he says, some health professionals now recommend exercise to individuals with sub clinical, mild or moderate levels of depression.
Exercise produces “feel-better” substances.
Most people have heard of endorphins: hormones released in the brain in response to pain and stress. “Endorphins create the sense of euphoria that follows exercise that felt hard, or even exhausting,” he says.
The brain also produces lesser-known substances called endocannabinoids, which are neurotransmitters that play a role in brain function. “These also increase with exercise, but the exercise does not need to be as demanding,” Ekkekakis says. He adds that early-stage research shows that even moderate exercise, such as a walk or a jog, can trigger the “feel-better” effect.
That’s why exercise is one of the things you can do to manage stress better.
Cognitive benefits of exercise
Exercise stimulates the creation of brain cells.
This benefit applies especially to seniors. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, “Regular physical activity and management of cardiovascular risk factors (diabetes, obesity, smoking and hypertension) reduce the risk of cognitive decline and may reduce the risk of dementia.”
New brain cells are created mostly in the hippocampus, an area vital for cognitive function (specifically memory) that is attacked by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Ekkekakis says. That new neuron creation is regulated by proteins — one of which, BDNF, is stimulated most strongly by exercise.
“Exercise is the only treatment that has been found to have significant positive effects in people with mild cognitive impairment and early-stage dementia without any negative side effects,” Ekkekakis says.
So keep working out. It can make you stronger in ways you can’t even see.
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