21 December 2007

The Many benefits of Exercise, Part 3:

This is the final section of "The Many Benefits of Exercise" series, in which we explore the most fascinating aspects of physical activity, namely: How exercise affects us psychologically, and improves our minds!

As you may know exercise is good for us physically, but it’s important to realise that many of the physical benefits in turn benefit the mind. The age old adage “healthy body healthy mind” rings true. The increased ability for the blood to pump oxygen can for instance help send oxygen to the brain which increases its ability to work effectively. There has indeed been a link found between exercise and intelligence, although intelligence is of course a difficult thing to measure (generally IQ is used for intelligence tests in humans). There have been studies done on mice which show how one group with access to running wheels do better in what is known as the “Morris water maze” test than those without access to a running wheel. So it seems that by exercising (and thus being generally fitter and healthier) these mice are able to function better in how they think. Why does this always surprise us so much? After all our brains are still physical entities, and benefit, like the rest of the body, from physical activity.

Exercise strengthens the brain such that is increases cognitive processing speed and boosts memory. Thus it essentially builds the most useful muscle of all, the brain (I was of course speaking metaphorically there). There have also been studies that show that there is a strong relationship between academic achievement and fitness, clearly there is something here.

“Many studies have proven that people who exercise on a regular basis have better memory, reaction time and concentration than their sedentary counterparts. They also stand a much better chance of avoiding such diseases as Alzheimer’s and senility. And it doesn’t take much: walking for 45 minutes three times a week is enough to improve your degree of mental sharpness. Aerobic activity stimulates the middle-frontal and superior parietal regions of the brain, which are associated with attention and keeping goals in mind.” - http://ririanproject.com/2007/10/11/10-benefits-of-exercise-and-how-to-start-doing-it/

But wait it gets even better. Scientists once thought that quite early on in life the brain could no longer renew itself and that the neurons in our brains were fixed almost from birth. The theory was that as we aged these neurons died off and were not replaced causing mental decline. However the neuroscientist Fred H. Gage, through tests on mice, found that neurons do in fact keep renewing themselves up until we die. That’s lovely Sam you say, but what does it have to do with exercise? Well, while all the mice were producing new neurons up until death, those mice who were athletic were producing up to two to three times as many neurons that those that weren’t!

So what you’re saying here Sam is that exercise can increase my intelligence simply by exercising? Well I’m not exactly sure if I’d say it quite like that. Clearly genetics play a role, as do other factors like nutrition and so on, but, hypothetically I’d say that if we had two realities, one in which you made the commitment to exercise regularly and one in which you didn’t, that your brain would function better in the first case, plus it would degenerate less and would not only work better but longer. But let us be realistic, this does not mean you can increase your IQ by 20 points or anything like that. But if you could just feel a little more refreshed and think with greater ease all while curbing your chance of suffering from mental illness and depression by simply running around a few times a week, wouldn’t you take it? I know I would.

This brings me to the next part of this article which relates to hormonal changes caused by exercise that help our psychological wellbeing on a daily basis. Exercise releases hormones called endorphins which you may well have already heard of. Endorphins are natural pain killers and are related to hormones like dopamine and serotonin which increase happiness levels and thus general feelings of well being. So exercise can help alleviate depression, give us a psychological boost and sharpen our ability to think. I know I have brushed over these concepts quite quickly but I think the benefits here are rather self-evident. If your always feeling happy and sharp you will obviously succeed more in whatever manner you wish to in life, than if you were to drudge through life in a depressed negative state. Clearly exercise has many benefits for the mind, indeed the list is ever growing as scientists continue to reveal the benefits of exercise for our psychological wellbeing. Here is a little extract from http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/bb/neuro/neuro05/web2/mmcgovern.html which you may find interesting:

“Fortunately, it may be possible to exercise to happiness. It has been shown that physically active people recover from mild depression more quickly, and physical activity is strongly correlated with good mental health as people age (7). Depression is related to low levels of certain neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine. Exercise increases concentrations of these neurotransmitters by stimulating the sympathetic nervous system (12).

In fact, a combination of exercise and antidepressants (which increase BDNF via the serotonin-BDNF loop) has been particularly effective in treating depressive behaviors in rats.”

There is still one more aspect of exercise I wish to touch on, this time relating not so much to exercise itself, but rather the routine behind it.Making the commitment to exercise regularly requires some commitment and dedication. Simply by giving yourself a routine and sticking to it you are increasing your ability to set yourself goals and actively pursue them, exercise again helps in this area. Regular exercise can not only provide a sense of routine, security and structure but also allow the exerciser time to relax, as the conscious mind does not have to stress over the days troubles. Make sure you make exercise enjoyable, make sure you make it a way for your mind to unwind this will grant some of the greatest benefits by simply giving you a well deserved mental break while at the same time encouraging commitment to a regular activity.

I know that I often think a lot when exercising, although often this is not very consciously, and often people get good ideas while they are exercising. Think about Einstein, who got his theory of relativity while riding a bike. Coincidence? Quite possibly, but I guess we’ll never truly know. There is however some proof to the idea that we get our best ideas when we are in a relaxed state of mind, and exercising is just one way of being just that. Another place people often get good ideas is in the bathroom, but that’s a story for another article.

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