We’ve all heard it, and hopefully experienced it: regular exercise reduces stress levels. I don’t need to beat that fact into the ground because well, it’s common knowledge. However, the response of our brains to exercise goes well beyond just feeling great after we workout. Many claim that a healthy exercise routine improves their confidence, gives them energy, and boosts their mood. While these examples are fine and dandy, the psychological feedback from exercise varies greatly from person to person.
Despite our different exercise experiences, current research is beginning to uncover the brain’s adaptation to exercise as it pertains to everybody. What researchers are finding is that exercise changes our brain on a cellular level. Its chemical structure, and even the brain’s size changes as a side effect to regular exercise…
Exercise Fights Back Against Anxiety and Stress
But, how? Think about working out as actual practice dealing with stress. Psychological stress and physical stress work in much the same way when it comes the the chemicals produced by our brains. Both forms of stress cause our systems to release a million hormones…well, not a million, but almost! Two that you may have heard of are cortisol, and norepinephrine.
When your mind feels cloudy and/or you have difficulty concentrating, you may be experiencing increased cortisol levels. Cortisol disrupts almost all body systems and is a common precursor to anxiety disorders and depression. Norepinephrine surges when we get startled, or when an acute incident occurs that puts extra work on the heart and cardiovascular system.
Research shows that those who exercise regularly have reduced levels of these hormones at rest than others who are more sedentary. Secondly, consistent exercise teaches the brain to release less of a stress hormone during a stressful situation. That’s great! Stress at work, screaming kids, and traffic jams will feel less intense and more importantly, do less damage to your body systems and brain with the aid of consistent physical exercise (stress practice).
Are you over 40? It’s time to build that brain!
Researchers studied the effects of aerobic exercise, including cycling, walking, and running on brain volume. The bad news: brain health, AND SIZE, decreases with age. The average brain actually shrinks by almost five percent every ten years following age 40.
The good news: a study of over 700 people aged 24 up to 76, displayed significant increases in the size of the hippocampuses (horseshoe shaped brain matter that assists with storage of long-term memory and develops emotion) with the help of 3- 24 months of exercise.
The results of this study on human brains provides implications about exercise as a preventative to age-related neurological disorders. More research is needed to establish a black-and-white correlation to exercise and Alzheimer’s and/or dementia, but proof of maintaining brain size and function with exercise is a great beginning to a new outlook on exercising for brain benefits.
Here is a TED Talk video discussing exercise and brain health:
authored by kenny palmer