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7 Ways Exercise Helps Your Brain (Learning This Changes Everything!)

Posted by Anna | Aug 31, 2020

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If you know folks who need motivation to exercise, this article’s for them! 

Knowing how exercise heals my mind helps me lace up my running shoes each day. So please do share this article with whoever needs to hear it.

Enjoy!

Warning: long read! 😊 Feel free to scan through this epic post to pick out the bits that apply to you.

Why This Matters

We all know exercise makes us live longer. But nobody talks about the benefit exercise brings to the mind.

Neuroscience shows aerobic movement is as effective as Prozac in treating depression (but without side effects). Exercise restores chemical balance to help treat anxiety and ADHD.

And it releases tiny proteins called neurotrophic factors. They're so effective at building new brain cells (to boost learning and reverse brain aging) that Dr John Ratey refers to them as:

“Miracle-Gro for the brain.”

Of course we feel confident with extra muscle and less fat. But the true miracle of exercise gets missed. It’s this:

Exercise restructures your brain so it works better (much better!) And it rebalances neurochemistry so your thoughts, feelings and impulses finally begin to work in your favour! -- click to tweet!

Who Doesn’t Want That?! 😊 


7 Huge Brain Benefits from Exercise

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1. Learning

A book that changed my life was John Ratey’s Spark: How Exercise Will Improve the Performance of Your Brain. One of the most striking chapters tells of the school children of Naperville, Illinois and their unique, experimental literacy programme: Zero Hour.

Every morning, before class started, kids with reading problems hooked themselves up to heart monitors and set to jogging round the school’s old canteen.

The results were astounding.

Children who jogged before school for one semester improved their reading skill by 17%. And the effects were most powerful in those kids who studied literacy immediately after exertion.

By what miracle does exercise achieve this?

Well, senses are heightened. Focus, mood and motivation improve.

But changes also happen at a far deeper level: With exercise, we enhance our very powers of recollection (read on to discover more).

2. Memory

When we exercise, our brain blossoms with an explosion of BDNF (it stands for brain-derived neurotrophic factor 😅).

Molecules of BDNF are so powerful that if you sprinkle them on a petri dish of brain cells, the neurons in the dish will immediately sprout new branches and reach out to each other.

That’s exactly what’s needed for memory.

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When we learn a new word, tentative signals fire off between brain cells. Every time we revise that word, the signal gains power, and the connection between the neurons grows. Cells morph to build a physical place for the new memory in your brain.

“Brain cells that fire together, wire together” - old neuroscience adage

So, during exercise, our newfound BDNF ("Miracle-Gro for the brain") unleashes a flow of ions that boosts the voltage of brain cells. It makes their signal power stronger!

And it generates all the raw material we need (including myelin) to forge new connections, and create learning that sticks.

Daily aerobic exercise will improve your memory all day long.

However, if you want max advantage, schedule your workout for right before your most difficult learning. The 60 minutes after movement is when BDNF is most high!

3. Focus

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Another reason exercise helps with learning is due to the powerful connection between physical fitness and capacity to focus.

An ECG (electroencephalogram) showed fitter kids in the Naperville experiment all buzzing with heightened brain activity!

For any focused task given, the fit kids brought more neurons into play. And they showed better results. 

In fact, even as little as 20 minutes of exercise at recess has been shown to drastically improve kids’ concentration with ADHD.

Part of this is due to neurogenesis (the boosting of brain cell growth discussed above). But another factor is blood flow.

Exercise creates new blood vessels that pipe in everything the brain needs, on demand. Oxygen, glucose, and a whole soup of neurochemicals flood in, and work together, to help your brain perform at its best.

4. Stress

This might surprise you, but in small doses, stress is actually brilliant for your brain.

Exercise is a stressor. Learning is a stressor. 

Anything that throws your brain a challenge encourages it grow.

In healthy doses, stress is about focus on risk, fueling a reaction, and engraving the memory of danger: 

🐅   Where exactly was that tiger??  🐅

Chronic stress, however (like most mental health challenges), happens when the brain gets locked in one mode.

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We can spin out - sweaty palms, racing heart, knotted stomach - just from thinking about our day job (without a tiger in sight!) And it’s miserable to be stuck in that loop.

But the beautiful thing about the mind-body connection is this: 

Just as our imaginations can generate physical stress in the body, so too can physical exercise restore equilibrium to the mind.

So, how does exercise help stress?

John Ratey says it best:

“Regular aerobic activity calms the body, so it can handle more stress before the serious response [involving heart rate and stress hormones] kicks in.”

Exercise raises the trigger point of our bodily reaction.

Meanwhile, back in the brain, that mild daily stressor of exercise “fortifies the infrastructure of our nerve cells.” And it raises our brain’s threshold for stress too!

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Best of all, exercise works immediately to kill stress.

When you go for a run, right away your muscle spindles relax. That triggers an instant feedback signal to the brain, effectively saying: "The body’s engaged and relaxed now. Danger being handled! Now, the brain can relax too."

Chonic stress is our body stuck in a loop, prepping for emergency, physical action. And physical action is our exit route, a surefire way to break the cycle.

All the results of our stress response (beating heart, blood and glucose gushing to our muscles, ready for fight or flight)... all that fuel and energy wants somewhere useful to go. 

And during exercise, it finds just the right outlet: It gets burned up by your physicality.

“When we exercise in response to stress, we’re doing what human beings have evolved to do over the past several million years.” -- John Ratey

Read on, for a deeper dive, in our Anxiety section below.

And BTW If you’re interested in stress reduction for work, you might love this article.

5. Anxiety

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This common mood disorder shares so many features with stress, they’re practically sisters.

Both rely on the amygdala, which is like our brain’s emergency alarm. When the amygdala spies danger, it sets the bells ringing and floods our system with cortisol and stress hormones that trigger fight or flight.

The heart races, muscles tense for action, eating and reproduction systems get dialed down till the emergency’s dealt with.

Saliva stops flowing (the dreaded dry mouth!) And even parts of your brain freeze up - you can’t think freely because all fuel’s being redirected to emergency systems.

This is no place to live. But tragically, chronic stress often tetters over into long-term anxiety. 

It's done so for 3.7% of world population (and a shocking 18% of Americans).

How is anxiety different from stress?

The difference is simple: Anxiety is a misinterpretation by the brain.

Our amygdala fires so hard, and for so long (during chronic stress), activating emergency centres, that connections with the rest of the brain begin to wither.

Normally, our brain reaches out into the hippocampus (the memory centre) to remind us, "We can talk to friends for relief."

Or the pre-frontal cortex (our executive centre) intervenes to reason, "We won’t die if this report gets turned in late."

However, during anxiety, these soothing connections get severed. Cortisol switches on genes that bulk up our brain cells around whatever narrow, panicked thought process seems so suddenly crucial to survival.

It becomes difficult to learn, difficult to remember, difficult to gain perspective. And any new experience gets filtered through this axis of fear, till the whole world seems like a threat.

What can exercise do to help?

Plenty! Studies have shown exercise is just as effective as medication.

Emerging from anxiety is all about reprogramming the brain’s misinterpretation of threat.

For a start, the vigour of movement helps an anxious person get out of the house, connect with others, and restore confidence.

But the biggest change happens inside.

Moving muscles break down fat for fuel. Fatty acids increase tryptophan in the blood, which passes into our brain, and helps build the neurotransmitter serotonin.

Serotonin regulates transport of messages across brain cells. It allows the prefrontal cortex to intervene, and calm the amygdala, and it generates feelings of calm and safety.

Just what’s needed!

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Physical movement also triggers GABA (gammaamino-butyric acid) which powers down excess brain function, and interrupts the obsessive feedback loop of anxiety. Interestingly, this is the exact same chemical process anti-anxiety meds are designed to trigger.

“Just keep in mind that the more stress you have, the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly.” -- John Ratey

6. Depression

If anxiety is an overreaction to stimuli, depression is it's opposite: retraction and withdrawal. 

Alexander Niculescu (psychiatrist) considers it a survival instinct: In environments devoid of hope, it makes evolutionary sense to “keep still and stay out of harm’s way," conserving resources in a sort of hibernation (since there’s nothing apparent left to hope for).

Dark times, indeed.

In depression, the body actually gives up on making neural connections: Neurogenesis halts, and the brain literally shrinks.

But happily, exercise can do plenty to help.

In the same way electro-shock therapy (ECT) is effective for depression (through startling the brain out of hibernation), similarly aerobic exercise lights a fire in our brain’s metabolism.

Our old friend BDNF ("Miracle-Gro for the brain") helps build new neural pathways that restore mass and function to the brain. Just going for a walk (being outdoors, taking in new sights) is a form of mental rehab that reminds us we have agency, and access to rich experience.

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It's worth remembering that exercise works well for all forms of depression and anxiety, whether it be long-term, clinical diagnoses or just a crappy day.

John Ratey says,

“I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters. It’s a handy metaphor to get the point across.”

However, the deeper wisdom is that exercise balances neurotransmitters and restores healthy equilibrium to the brain.

Whatever you’re struggling with, just remember: The right kind of exercise can help. -- click to tweet!

So What Sort of Exercise Do I Need? And How Much?

This is a fascinating topic.

John Ratey, in his book Spark, is generous enough to prescribe specific doses for different people, depending on the challenges they face (anxiety, depression, aging etc.)

I’ve tried to compress his epic wisdom into a simple cheat sheet. You can download it here.

But the TL;DR is this:

“Some is good. More is better.”
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Most brain studies set out to measure the benefits of 30 mins aerobic movement daily. So we know, for sure, that's good enough to bring benefits to your brain.

But even 15 mins exertion has been shown to boost any learning you do immediately after.

And for the overachievers: If you can perform 45 - 60 minutes of aerobic exercise daily, then your brain will be in truly brilliant shape!

More details are in the cheat sheet, but the most intriguing insight for me was this:

Exercise that includes a component of skill is significantly more effective at boosting your brain.

Yoga, gymnastics or martial arts (complex movements) help to create mental infrastructure that knowledge and wisdom later latch on to.

You heard that right: Yoga makes you smarter! 😊 - click to tweet!

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Conclusion

If you’re like me, it’s tricky finding motivation to exercise. Especially when all you have to spur you on is a distant hope of fitting into tighter pants.

I mean, who really cares about that?

But learning about exercise and the brain changes things for the better. (At least, it did for me).

Things change when you realise: Every element of thoughts, feelings, practice, plans, creativity, even your motivations… all operate from, and depend upon, your brain.

And you can do one simple thing to make it all improve: Just raise your heart rate for 15, 30, 45 or 60 minutes per day.

“Some is good. More is better.”

This post is distilled from the excellent works of Dr John Ratey. I recommend his book. It’s a few years’ old, but his arguments have only gained authority over the years.

It’s worth reading.

And it’s also worth spreading these ideas far and wide.

My hope is, it could make a real difference to someone, if you do.


Caveat: This info is drawn from books (and retold by a non-expert - that's me!) with the intention to educate and inspire you. Please consult your doctor before making a change that affects your health.

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PS. Need Extra Motivation?

Here’s what I tell myself when I’m reluctant to exercise:

Too depressed for a walk? Walking makes it better!

Too stressed for a run? Running makes that better!

Too busy for yoga? What am I so busy with??! 

Whatever it is - creativity, learning, or focused work - guaranteed, a session of yoga will make it better!  😊 


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