Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? I always recommend my clients to try to fit exercise in their daily routine. The evidence is incontrovertible: aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance.
In the book “SPARK”, John J. Ratey, M.D., explores comprehensively the connection between exercise and the brain, presenting startling research to prove that exercise is truly our best defense against everything from depression to ADD to addiction to aggression to menopause to Alzheimer’s.
Everybody knows that exercise creates a fit body, but what many forget is that the brain is part of the body too. Modern science has been able to learn much about how the brain works, and has even tracked neurogenesis (i.e., new cell growth) in the brain in response to exercise.
The old saying, “Once your brain cells die, they can’t grow back,” is a myth.
It should be no surprise that humans respond positively to exercise. We’re descendants of hunter-gatherers who were optimized over thousands of years by evolution to walk and run around the equivalent of many miles per day.
I’ve decided to include in this blog quite a few excerpts from the book as I may need this info to motivate myself in the future!
I have faith that when people come to accept that exercise is as important for the brain as it is for the heart, they’ll commit to it.
Here’s how exercise keeps you going:
1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system. A strong heart and lungs reduce resting blood pressure. The result is less strain on the vessels in the body and the brain. There are several mechanisms at work here. First, contracting muscles during exercise releases growth factors such as VEGF and fibroblast growth factor (FGF-2). Aside from their role in helping neurons bind and promoting neurogenesis, they trigger a molecular chain reaction that produces endothelial cells, which make up the inner lining of blood vessels and thus are important for building new ones. Second, exercise introduces more nitric oxide, a gas that widens the vessels’ passageways to boost blood volume. Third, the increased blood flow during moderate to intense activity reduces hardening of the brain arteries. Finally, exercise can to some extent counteract vascular damage. Stroke victims and even Alzheimer’s patients who participate in aerobic exercise improve their scores on cognitive tests.
Starting exercise when you’re young is best, but it’s never too late!
2. It regulates energy. As we age, insulin levels drop; and glucose has a harder time getting into the cells to fuel them. Then glucose can skyrocket, which creates waste products in the cells–such as free radicals–and damages blood vessels, putting us at risk for stroke and Alzheimer’s. When everything is balanced, insulin works against the build-up of amyloid plaque, but too much encourages the build-up, as well as inflammation, damaging surrounding neurons.
3. It helps fight obesity. Aside from wreaking havoc on the cardiovascular and metabolic systems, body fat has its own nasty effects on the brain. Simply being overweight doubles the chances of developing dementia, and if we factor in high blood pressure and high cholesterol–symptoms that often come along with obesity–the risk increases six-fold. Exercise, naturally, counteracts obesity on two fronts: it burns calories, and it reduces appetite.
4. It makes you more resilient to stress. Exercise combats the corrosive effects of too much cortisol, a product of chronic stress that can bring on depression and dementia. It also bolsters neurons against excess glucose, free radicals, and the excitatory neurotransmitter glutamate, all necessary, but they can damage cells if left unchecked. Exercise makes proteins that fix the damage and delay the process.
5. It makes you happier. More neurotransmitters, neurotrophies, and connectivity shore up the hippocampus against the atrophy associated with depression and anxiety. Staying mobile also allows us to stay involved, keep up with people, and make new friends; social connections are important in elevating and sustaining mood.
6. It boosts your immune system. Stress and age depress the immune response, and exercise strengthens it directly in two important ways. First, even moderate activity levels rally the immune system’s antibodies and lymphocytes, which you probably know as T cells. Antibodies attack bacterial and viral infections and having more T cells make the body more alert to the development of conditions such a s cancer. Those who are physically active, for instance, have a 50 percent lower chance of developing colon cancer.
7. It prevents osteoporosis. Women reach peak bone mass at around thirty, and after that they lose about 1 percent a year until menopause, when the pace doubles. The result is that by age sixty, about 30 percent of a woman’s bone mass has disappeared. Unless, that is, she takes calcium and vitamin D (which comes free with ten minutes of morning sun a day) and does some form of exercise or strength training to stress the bones. Walking doesn’t quite do the job. But as a young adult, weight training or any sport that involves running or jumping will counteract the natural loss. the degree to which you can prevent the loss is impressive: one study found that women can double their leg strength in just a few months of weight training.
8. It increases motivation. The road to successful aging really begins with desire, because without the desire to stay engaged and active ad alive, people quickly fall into the death trap of being sedentary and solitary. One of the problems of getting older is the lack of challenges, but with exercise we can continually improve and push ourselves. Exercise counteracts the natural decline of dopamine, the key neurotransmitter in the motivation and motor systems. When you move, you’re inherently boosting motivation by strengthening the connections between dopamine neurons, while at the same time guarding against Parkinson’s.
And by far my favorite benefit of exercising:
9. It fosters neuroplasticity. The best way to guard against neurodegenerative diseases is to build a strong brain. Aerobic exercise accomplishes this by strengthening connections between your brain cells, creating more synapses to expand the web of connections, and spurring newly born stem cells to divide and become functional neurons in the hippocampus. Moving the body keeps the brain growing by elevating the supply of neurotrophic factors necessary for neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, which should otherwise naturally diminish with age. All these structural changes improve your brain’s ability to learn and remember, execute higher thought processes, and manage your emotions. The more robust the connections, the better prepared your brain will be to handle and damage it might experience.
Dr. John J. Ratey, M.D., is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and has a private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts.