Your Brain on Exercise

In grad school I had to take a 900 level class called Neurological Response to Exercise.  That one really wasn’t that hard.  It was the 900 level Endocrine Response to Exercise that nearly killed me. Either way, they were two of the most interesting, and challenging classes I have ever taken.  It’s been awhile since I took them so I am always looking to brush up on these topics as the science is always changing.

There is, of course, a standard knowledge base about the health benefits of exercise. What I am going to stick to here is just how exercise affects the brain, learning, cognition, memory, and mood.  Further, it’s downright scary what stress, and the typical American lifestyle can do to erode our brain, hamper our ability to learn and remember, and generally put us in a bad mood.

Exercise has a profound effect on cognitive abilities and our overall mental health.  Exercise is not just a “medicine” for those people who have already been diagnosed with a mental health disease. It’s also for those who want to prevent mental health issues like anxiety, depression, and mood disorders.  Exercise has been studied extensively and, among many other positive things it can do for us, it can elevate “friendly” neurotransmitters like serotonin, norepinephrin, and dopamine.  That sounds good to me.

I was recently reading, “SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and The Brain“.  In it, the author, John J. Ratey, M.D., introduced something new to me (I’m a little behind).  He explained what he called “the master learning molecule”:  brain derived neutrophic factor (BDNF) which builds and maintains cell circuitry.  He cited a study by Carl Cotman at UC Irvine which demonstrated that exercise sparked BDNF in rats, and the more exercise he had rats in his study do, the more BDNF they produced.  The increase in BDNF as a response to exercise also allowed the rats in the study to learn faster.  I could have used some BDNF in grad school.

Another topic the author spends time on is the notion of how your environment affects learning.  I’m not talking greenhouse gases here. I’m talking about the spaces you live and work, who you come in contact with, where you spend time, and the like.  Social contact affects learning. This makes sense.  There have been many a patient or client that I have worked with that I have tried to explain how social isolation can be hazardous to your health.  It’s dangerous, just like high blood pressure.  But we now actually have studies that can be cited that have measured that the more active you are, the more likely you are to be social.  More socialization is good for your health.  Just as long as it’s no so much that you blow off studying, of course.

When it comes to learning, being alert is a great place to start.  Ratey explains that exercise helps prepare and encourage nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging new information.  Exercise also spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.  I could definitely use some more of those.  Whenever I get tired or am struggling in the productivity/concentration department, I take a break and exercise.  I am fortunate enough to work in and around beautiful fitness and recreational facilities and use them regularly. However, a 15 minute walk is all you need.  I regularly recommend jumping rope for a few minutes.  I got this idea from the author of SPARK as well.  A quick exercise break increases alertness and “wakes you up” for lack of a better term.

The most concerning information that the SPARK book presented (and reminded me) is just how detrimental chronic stress can be on the brain.  The typical American lifestyle is overwhelmed with packed schedules and loads of incoming information, and it’s not all relevant to daily life. I quit watching cable news in 2008 for exactly this reason. I haven’t missed it one bit. I don’t need bad news streamed to me 24/7, I can get enough on my own.

There is nothing that I found that is too “new” by way of the body’s endocrine response to stress that has changed:  it’s not good.  Too much stress causes an increased amount of cortisol, which can – after prolonged periods of time – lead to too much belly fat.  Too much abdominal fat increases cardiovascular risk.  This is a dangerous equation that is becoming all too common in our culture.

If you haven’t figured it out by now, I highly recommend the SPARK book I have been referring too.  I found it to be a great review of the advanced physiology classes I took in graduate school but presented in a way that is meaningful to anyone reading the book.  It presents concrete science that supports the positive effect that exercise has on the brain.  I also recommend you check out SPARK Physical Education Program, which has been used to address childhood obesity.

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