Exercise enhances your body, mind and mood.
There are many benefits to exercise, 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 and get moving, here are a few mind-blowing benefits and ways exercise can boost your brainpower and overall health:
Staves off the aging process
Want to look younger for longer? Exercise makes this dream a reality, as it may actually work to reverse the toll stress has on the 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. In the study from Brigham Young University, women who jogged at least 30 minutes daily and men who jogged 40 minutes daily, five days a week, were considered highly active. In comparison, both moderately active participants and those with sedentary lifestyles had significantly shorter telomeres, which are the DNA bookends on each chromosome associated with cellular aging.
Federal guidelines recommend 150 to 300 minutes of moderate, heart-pumping activity a week for maximum health benefits.
Helps lift depression and anxiety
Some clients who work with Meghan Kennihan, a certified personal trainer and running coach based in LaGrange, Illinois, reported feeling depressed or anxious. Workouts combat these feelings by boosting their endorphins, or feel-good chemicals in the brain. The end result? Workouts help them feel better, she says.
A 2021 randomized trial in the Annals of Family Medicine that compared physical activity with antidepressant drugs in those ages 65 and older found that improvement in depression was similar in both the exercise group and the medication group after one month. The results favored antidepressant meds over the long term, but study participants still found exercise to be helpful for them.
Research suggests that burning 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 affected by depression.
Intense exercise improved mental fitness in an imaging study that looked at chemical messengers in the brain. When participants exercised on stationary bikes to reach near-peak heart rates, their levels of the neurotransmitters 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.
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.”
While recharging your spirit, physical activity also can help create more positive emotions, says Haley Perlus, a sports and performance psychology expert based in Denver.
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 maintain their health).”
Complex activities also improve our capacity to learn by enhancing our attention and concentration skills. In one study, German researchers 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 study on older women from Brazil, published July 2021 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 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.”
Exercise can help counter the toll these events take on mental health.
Promotes fun and enjoyment
Your options for exercise are endless, making a fun, fit experience well within reach. Dance, for instance, 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” especially.
“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.”
Having fun reduces stress and opens your mind to creativity. Whether you’re playing beach volleyball or doing Zumba, moving and laughing with others offers an exercise bonus.
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.
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,” Fifer says, “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, for almost everybody, we feel better after a workout. That’s part of the reason — our bodies release these ‘happy’ hormones, sometimes referred to as endorphins, and that’s really good for us.”
“The weight loss and muscle gain that comes with workouts improves a lot of my clients’ self-esteem and self-confidence,” Kennihan says. Even without losing weight, learning a new physical skill or seeing progress through weight sessions often boosts confidence, she adds.
“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
Most of us have a million thoughts careening through our minds at once. This can be overwhelming, but exercise helps channel your energy and focus 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.
“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 questioning: ‘What’s next?’ or ‘What do I have to solve?'”
Keeps the brain fit
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.
In this study, 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.
May keep dementia at bay
On the other hand, regular exercise has been called “the first among equals” when looking at lifestyle practices that can reduce dementia risk. The Alzheimer’s Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against 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. Whether it’s going through a pandemic, watching political unrest on the news or experiencing personal or professional changes – we’re all taking in a lot. Exercise can be a way to process emotions, Fifer says.
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 explains. “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.”
Federal guidelines for exercise
If you want to achieve the maximum benefits from physical activity for your overall health, here’s what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends for adults:
— Moderate physical activity for at least 150 to 300 minutes a week. Moderate activity would include activities such as brisk walking or fast dancing, according to the guidelines. You can break that down into smaller chunks to better fit your schedule and interests too. For instance, 150 minutes can be portioned out into 30 minutes of activity, 5 days a week.
— Adults should also have two muscle-strengthening sessions a week with activities like push-ups or lifting weights.
— Adults should move more and sit less throughout the day. As the guidelines say, “Some activity is better than none.”
— Older adults should add balance-focused exercises to their cardio and muscle-strengthening activities. If a chronic condition limits older adults from doing 150 minutes of moderate physical activity, they should do as much as their condition allows.
Precautions when you’re new to exercise
Here are a few precautions to keep in mind if you’re new to exercise:
— Check with a health care provider first to make sure you’re OK to exercise. This is something you should do even if you’ve been exercising for a while and you’re about to ramp up your intensity, Fifer says. Before starting training for a long-course triathlon, Fifer’s doctor suggested a cardiac work-up due to a history of heart disease in the family. “After a clean bill of health, I felt a lot more confident to push hard in training and racing knowing it was safe to do so,” she says.
— Start slow. “There’s no need to jump into an hour spin class or hard high-intensity interval training strength class when you’ve never exercised before,” Kennihan says. The best place to start for most people is walking. You can aim for a 15- to 30-minute walk two to three times a week and then increase your timing and frequency, she adds. Once you’re comfortable with your walking routine, add a body weight strength session twice a week for 15 minutes and gradually build up your timing.
— Focus on building the exercise habit. “Choose something you can do daily and focus on doing it daily,” Perlus suggests. Even 10 minutes a day for starters can help you develop the habit.
— Work with a personal trainer. If you can afford it, a good trainer can ensure you have proper form and help tailor a good exercise program for you.
Getting and staying motivated
You may be convinced of the benefits of exercise but still have a hard time getting motivated to do it. You’re not alone.
“The hardest part of exercise is often the first few minutes, so it’s essential to prepare yourself ahead of time,” Perlus says.
Here are some hacks to get around a potential lack of motivation:
— Play motivational music right before you work out, Perlus suggests. This could be anything that makes you feel up for moving.
— Watch or listen to an inspiring podcast or video that encourages you to move your body.
— Find an accountability partner. This is someone who will hold you accountable for getting workouts done. In fact, the two of you may decide to be each other’s accountability partner.
— Experiment with the best times to work out. You don’t necessarily have to go full force at 5 a.m. if you’re not a morning person, Fifer says. If your schedule allows, try to fit exercise in at lunch or after work. See what time makes you feel the most motivated.
Other ways to stay healthy
Regular exercise is just one way to stay mentally sharp and feeling good. In addition to physical activity, here are a few other ways to maintain a healthy lifestyle:
— Avoid eating a lot of processed food.
— Make sure you’re drinking enough fluids. Believe it or not, sometimes you may not feel mentally strong simply because you’re dehydrated. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine advises 91 ounces or 11.5 cups a day for women and 125 ounces or 15.5 cups a day for men. Although water is the obvious option to stay hydrated, tea, sparkling water, milk and even coffee can also help you meet your hydration goals. Alcohol, on the other hand, doesn’t.
— Get enough sleep. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises seven hours or more a day for adults.
— Seek out healthy and supportive friendships and relationships, Fifer advises.
Exercise has many superpowers for mental and emotional well-being:
–Staves off detrimental effects of stress.
–Recharges your spirit.
–Raises functional ability.
–Promotes fun and enjoyment.
–Leaves you feeling euphoric.
–Clears your head space.
–Keeps the brain fit.
–May keep dementia at bay.
–Helps you process emotions.
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Update 01/20/23: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.