|By Adrian Sparrow
We all know that exercise is good for you. It strengthens your muscles and bones, increases your energy, improves your sleep, and reduces your risk of chronic disease. Physical exercise also supports a healthy brain, and not just physically—several mental, emotional, and social benefits come from regular physical activity.
There are several ways that exercise can boost your brainpower.
Reduce Cognitive Decline
Aerobic activity such as cycling or swimming strengthens your heart and lungs, which improves blood flow to the brain. Physical activity also reduces inflammation and lowers levels of stress hormones. There are also physical benefits to the brain itself, like improving the integrity of white matter and promoting neuroplasticity, or your brain’s ability to grow and change in response to stimuli. Researchers found that regular aerobic exercise appears to increase the size of the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory. These benefits, as well as improved sleep and mood, contribute to stronger cognitive skills.
As we age, our brains naturally begin to deteriorate. Regular physical and mental exercises (such as learning a new instrument or playing crossword puzzles) can help shield your brain from the effects of aging. Even for people at risk of developing dementia, aerobic exercise can still significantly impact their brain function.
If you’ve ever experienced a runner’s high after intense or lengthy exercise, you know that sustained physical activity can boost your mood. Aerobic exercise floods your body with endorphins and endocannabinoids, which lead to feelings of happiness, euphoria, calm, and reduced anxiety.
Though it may take several miles or hours of activity to reach the deep state of bliss that marks a runner’s high, even short bursts of exercise can leave you happier. As you exercise, your brain’s reward centers are activated by the rush of endorphins, leading to more circulating dopamine and active dopamine receptors. Exercise primes your brain to feel pleasure, joy, and motivation more readily, increasing your mood long after the workout is over.
Improved energy and sleep are also possible results of increased exercise, which can help you manage symptoms of depression and other mental disorders.
Build Trust and Connection
The mood boost from exercise can translate into having more positive interactions with friends and loved ones. In addition, synchrony can increase collective joy. Moving in rhythm with others, such as dancing or rowing, can trigger the release of endorphins while making us feel good physically and helping us bond with others. Several different parts of your brain benefit from social connection, which group exercise provides along with synchronized movement and added music. People who exercise together “like, trust, and feel closer to one another afterward” (source), even with strangers.
Boost Self Image
It’s no small secret that exercise can cut down fat and tone your muscles, but it doesn’t just change your physical appearance (although that can also boost your confidence). Physical accomplishments like deadlifting 100 pounds or doing 100 pushups can prove what you are capable of, boosting your confidence and self-esteem. You can tell yourself, “I’ve done this before, I can do it again,” making your subconscious remember that you can- and likely better. The more we reinforce our subconscious with positive affirmations, the more we believe in ourselves, our confidence and courage grow, and our self-image improves.
Try to get 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity a week (30 minutes, five days per week), such as swimming, jogging, or dancing. Remember that some exercise is better than nothing, and gradually work your way up to your exercise goals. Grab a friend, join a dance class, and hit the music. It’s time to feel good.