Exercise enhances your body, mind and mood.
Maybe you exercise to tone your thighs, build your biceps or flatten your belly. Or maybe you work out to ward off the big killers like heart disease, diabetes and cancer. But how about sweating to improve your mind?
“Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory and learning,” says Dr. John Ratey, author of the book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” and an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. “Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.”
If you need a little extra incentive to lace up those sneakers, here are 14 ways that exercise can boost your brainpower.
Staves off detrimental effects of stress
What’s fascinating is that exercise may actually work to reverse stress’s toll on our aging process.
Being highly active may reduce aging at the cellular level by up to nine years, according to a study published in the July 2017 issue of Preventive Medicine. Among nearly 6,000 U.S. adults, participants with the least signs of chromosomal aging were those who exercised the most. Women who jogged at least 30 minutes daily or men who jogged 40 minutes daily, five days a week, were considered highly active, in the study from Brigham Young University. In comparison, both moderately active participants and those with sedentary lifestyles had significantly shorter telomeres, an important sign of cellular aging.
In an earlier study from the University of California–San Francisco, researchers found that stressed-out women who exercised vigorously for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared with women who were stressed and inactive. Working out may also help us reduce ruminating — reliving stressful thoughts again and again — by altering blood flow to the brain, according to study authors.
Research suggests that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. That may be because exercise appears to stimulate the growth of neurons in certain brain regions damaged by depression.
Intense exercise improved mental fitness in an imaging study that looked at chemical message transmitters in the brain. When participants exercised on stationary bikes to reach near-peak heart rates, their levels of the brain chemicals glutamate and GABA increased as measured by advanced MRI imaging, in the study published in February 2016 in the Journal of Neuroscience. Glutamate and GABA deficiencies have been found in people with depression.
Another earlier study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants’ levels of GABA, which typically translates to improved mood and decreased anxiety. Yoga can be used to complement — not substitute for — drug treatment for depression, the researchers said.
Increases good mental health days
People who exercised had fewer days of poor mental health in the previous months compared with similar people who did not exercise, in a study that analyzed data from more than 1.2 million U.S. adults, published in the September 2018 issue of The Lancet Psychiatry. Although all types of exercise were related to reduced mental health problems, the biggest effect was seen with team sports, cycling and aerobic and gym activities.
The time you put into weekly exercise matters. The sweet spot for best mental health results in the study was activity sessions lasting for 45 minutes, done three to five times per week.
Recharges your spirit
“Exercise can refresh and recharge our mindset,” says Angela Fifer, a Pittsburgh-based certified mental performance consultant with Higher Echelon, a leadership development company. “We all need that and oftentimes don’t take the time to do it intentionally.”
Fifer, who works with athletes as well as businesses and other organizations, says, “One of the things we talk about is making sure to create some personal time for whatever it is you need for stress relief. Exercise is such a great one because it provides both the physical and the mental/emotional benefits as well.”
Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.
Interestingly, complicated activities, like playing tennis or taking a dance class, provide the biggest brain boost. “You’re challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination,” Ratey explains. “Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to grow.”
Complicated activities also improve our capacity to learn by enhancing our attention and concentration skills, according to German researchers who found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after doing 10 minutes of a complicated fitness routine compared with 10 minutes of regular activity. (Those who hadn’t exercised at all scored the worst.)
Raises functional ability
Older women can dance their way to improved functional fitness, with increased coordination and agility, according to a new study on older women from Brazil, published July 28 in the journal Menopause. Dancing as exercise was also linked to physical benefits such as a rise in HDL (good) cholesterol, a decrease in LDL (bad) cholesterol and improved aerobic capacity among the 36 participants who met for three weekly, 90-minute dance sessions over four months.
“After menopause, women are exposed to several changes in the body — such as increase in body fat and development of chronic noncommunicable diseases (like heart disease) — which can have a negative impact on mental health,” says study author Camila Buonani da Silva, head of the sports research group in the department of physical education at Sao Paulo State University–UNESP in Brazil. “At this stage of a woman’s life, events can also occur which increase the damage to mental health, such as retirement and the death of loved ones.”
Promotes fun and enjoyment
Dance can fill a physical activity void for people who aren’t attracted to standard exercise options, Buonani da Silva says: “The best exercise is one we like to do, and dancing should be encouraged and considered for postmenopausal women.”
Having fun reduces stress and opens your mind to creativity. Whether you’re playing beach volleyball or doing Zumba, moving and laughing with others represents an exercise bonus.
“Dance promotes physical and mental health benefits, is affordable, has a low risk of injury and is an option that appeals to all ages,” Buonani da Silva says. “In addition, dancing is a fun practice, promotes socialization and can easily be included in people’s routines.”
Builds self-esteem and improves body image
You don’t need to radically change your body shape to get a self-esteem surge from exercise. Studies suggest that simply seeing fitness improvements, like running a faster mile or lifting more weight than before, can improve your self-esteem and body image.
In the Brazilian study on dance, older women experienced increased self-esteem and improved self-image, among the other benefits.
Leaves you feeling euphoric
Yes, that “runner’s high” really does exist if you’re willing to shift into high-intensity mode. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training. Run, bike or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. “You’ll feel really sparkly for the rest of the day,” he says.
So, what if you prefer other activities? “You can get a runner’s high without being a runner,” Fifer says. “Even by going for a brisk walk, or maybe it’s your yoga class or cardio boot camp. Just by getting out there and moving, our body releases endorphins — and these endorphins create a feeling of euphoria.”
Sometimes the sensation is subtle or mildly noticeable, Fifer notes. “But, almost for everybody, we feel better after a workout. That’s part of the reason — our bodies release these ‘happy’ hormones and that’s really good for us.”
Once you clear your mind, perhaps with a ballet barre workout or weight-training session, then you feel better equipped to take on essential tasks.
“When we are exercising and we have just a really good routine where we’re prioritizing ourselves as well as our jobs, our families or kids and all the other things, that allows us to be more confident,” Fifer says, whether at home, in parenting or as a leader at work. “All of those are really important in how we view ourselves.”
Clears your head space
Multitasking, Zoom meetings, family obligations, work deadlines — not to mention COVID-19 concerns and precautions — most of us have a million thoughts careening through our minds at once. Exercise helps channel your energy elsewhere.
“When we get the body moving, the blood pumping, it frees our mind up,” Fifer says. “And we’re not focused so hard on what’s next for work or solving a problem — we’re just moving.” Meanwhile, she adds, the body is releasing hormones such as energizing endorphins and calming serotonin, while reducing stress-related cortisol levels.
“So, there are some really good physiological things happening in the body,” Fifer says. “And that’s on top of creating that mental space for us to be open in the present moment, and just kind of ‘be’ instead of: ‘What’s next?’ or ‘What do I have to solve?'”
Keeps the brain fit
Even mild activity like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong.
Among participants ages 65 and older, doing certain kinds of exercise was related to better performance in specific cognitive functions in comparison to doing no physical activity, in a study published in July 2020 in the journal BMC Geriatrics.
Older adults who did “closed-skill” activities, which are predictable and self-directed — like swimming — showed better selective attention and visual-spatial function. Those who did “open-skilled” physical activities, which require participants to perform in a dynamic setting and respond to frequent, unpredictable changes — like tennis — showed better inhibition and cognitive flexibility.
In a previous study, Canadian researchers analyzed the energy expenditure and cognitive functioning of elderly adults over the course of two to five years. Most of the participants did not work out; their activities revolved around short walks, cooking, gardening and cleaning. Still, compared with their sedentary peers, the most active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function, and they showed the least amount of cognitive decline. By the study’s end, roughly 90% of them could think and remember just as well as they could when the study began.
May keep dementia at bay
On the other hand, regular exercise has been called “the first among equals” among lifestyle practices that can reduce dementia risk, and the Alzheimer’s Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against the Alzheimer’s disease — the most common dementia type. Exercise appears to protect the hippocampus, which governs memory and spatial navigation, and is one of the first brain regions to succumb to Alzheimer’s-related damage.
Helps you process emotions
In these turbulent times, exercise is definitely a form of self-care. “We’ve all been under a lot this past year and a half,” Fifer says. “It’s been pretty stressful and some of our relationships have grown (but) some of them have hurt a little bit because of isolation and just not being able to do all the things we’re used to. And, so, exercise can be a way that we process emotions.”
At times, it’s hard to even understand what it is you’re feeling, or pinpoint exactly what’s making you so sad, for instance, Fifer says. “When we go out and exercise it gives us that boost,” she says. “It just gives us that space to process emotions if we feel that we need to, and then let it go and get ready for whatever we have next.”
Exercise has many superpowers for mental and emotional well-being:
— Staves off detrimental effects of stress.
— Lifts depression.
— Increases good mental health days.
— Recharges your spirit.
— Improves learning.
— Raises functional ability.
— Promotes fun and enjoyment.
— Builds self-esteem and body image.
— Leaves you feeling euphoric.
— Fosters confidence.
— Clears your head space.
— Keeps the brain fit.
— May keep dementia at bay.
— Helps you process emotions.
More from U.S. News
Update 08/25/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.