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Transform Your Brain and Prevent Mental Illness With Exercise

Exercise is one of the most transformative things you can do for your body, brain, and mental health. The many physical benefits of exercise are well documented in the scientific literature, including improvements in muscle strength, weight management, and cardiovascular health. However, what is not talked about enough in my view are the many emotional, cognitive, and neurological benefits. This includes minimizing your chances of developing diseases like Alzheimer’s and mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety.

What can exercise do for you?

  • Increase energy & self confidence
  • Improve moods and emotional regulation
  • Heighten memory
  • Enhance focus and attention
  • Decrease risk of depression and anxiety
  • Offset cognitive and neurological declines in the brain

Let’s discuss how this is possible and what types of exercise are best for your unique health needs.

Why and How does Exercise Help?

Exercise changes the brain’s anatomy, physiology, and function both immediately after a workout and over the long term.

Immediate Effects

Even after just one workout, your body releases feel-good sensations in the brain that improve your mood. Nicknamed the “runners high,” this mood lift is thanks to endorphins, a hormone that acts as a natural pain and stress reliever.

Endorphins aren’t the only chemicals boosted during exercise. Physical activity has also been shown to immediately increase levels of dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine.

Dopamine plays an important role in processes that control desire, motivation and cravings. It also influences: mood, sleep, learning, movement, alertness, blood flow, and urine output. Conversely, deficiencies in dopamine have been linked to Parkinson’s disease, depression, hallucinations and schizophrenia.

Serotonin helps to regulate the digestive system. Studies show that your digestive health is linked to mental disorders, including depression and anxiety. In fact, 90% of your body’s total serotonin resides in the enterochromaffin cells in the gastrointestinal tract. Serotonin also plays a role in regulating sleep, mood, metabolism, concentration, cognition, and hormones.

Norepinephrine is a stress hormone and a neurotransmitter that helps maintain blood pressure during stress and plays an important role in your sleep-wake cycle, mood, and memory.

These three major monoamine neurotransmitters play crucial roles in brain function. Evidence suggests they also help in the resistance of and recovery from mental disorders. 

Exercise will also immediately increase blood flow and help regulate blood sugars. When you are active on a regular basis, it will lower your A1C (average blood sugar levels) to help provide consistent energy and help prevent diabetes. Blood sugar regulation is also known to help with irritability and anxiety symptoms.

Long Term Effects

The long term effects of exercise are a significant factor in not only living a long life, but a fulfilling one – with more years spent cognitively and physically healthy. There are numerous positive effects that regular exercise has on brain health.

The hippocampus shrinks in late adulthood, which increases the risk of dementia and memory loss due to its vital role in learning, memory, and spatial navigation. Fortunately, clinical studies have shown us that long term exercise habits can result in less atrophy in the hippocampus and frontal lobe. The frontal lobes are our personality and behaviour centres. They are necessary for voluntary movement, language, and higher level executive functions (e.g. planning, organizing, controlling responses). 

In essence, exercise can help maintain or even improve your long term memory and your ability to maintain focus by protecting the most susceptible areas of your brain from neurodegenerative diseases. While exercise can’t cure Alzheimer’s, imagine feeling as sharp as you are now, well into your senior years.

In addition to long term brain health, there are cellular benefits. Consistent exercise results in higher brain oxygen levels and energy production. This is because it helps produce more mitochondria – the energy powerhouse of the cell. The mitochondria are vital to the health of your tissues and organs. Exercise improves mitochondrial quality and function as well by stimulating their turnover. Accumulating evidence suggests that healthy mitochondria play an important role in anti-aging, longevity, and mental well-being.

We also can’t discount the mental health benefits associated with the physical changes exercise can achieve. These include less physical discomfort and increased confidence, through both prolonged physical abilities and both in ability (particularly as we age) and aesthetics. A physically fit body has better balance, strength and reaction time, which can equal more confidence and much less fear and anxiety in older adults as they participate in everyday activities.

Where do I invest my time?

Now that we’ve established the many incredible benefits exercise has, you’re likely wondering how you should invest your time to achieve long term mental and physical vitality. Aerobic and resistance training have both been shown to be effective in mental health, brain health, and physical health, but achieve it in different ways.

A combination of aerobic and resistance training will provide you with the most multi-system benefits. Scientific research shows that aerobic exercise is associated with boosts in serotonin and dopamine, while both brain and mitochondrial health are supported by both styles of exercise. Resistance training lends itself better to increasing strength, balance, and reaction time. Both styles of exercise will support a healthy body composition.

Cardiovascular exercise creates more overall good stress but can be tough on your joints if you have injuries or structural issues. In these cases, low impact options, such as swimming, may be better choices. Strength training creates less stress on the body and can also have great cardiovascular benefits if performed correctly.

The goal is not only to live a long life, but to optimize our abilities along the way. Exercise helps us do that, and those who enjoy their activity will do it more often.

To find what’s right for you, you’ll want to consider multiple factors. Working with your Exercise Physiologist or another member of your Harrison Healthcare team is an important step in developing a personalized plan that will set you up to achieve your mental and physical health goals.



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