We know that sedentary lifestyles wreak havoc on our physical health. But inactivity isn’t doing our minds any favors, either.
As civilization and screen time have more people sitting on their rears, brains are deteriorating along with the brawn. As it turns out, exercise is vital to our cognitive functioning and mental well-being.
“Exercise is the fountain of youth for the brain,” says John Ratey, M.D., associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of “SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” “It’s what keeps your mind and memory sharp.”
Unlike the cosmetic benefits of exercise (it could take months to drop a dress size), the mental benefits of physical activity are immediate. With some sweat and an elevated heart rate, you can start feeling calmer, more creative and focused as soon as you finish your workout.
Here are some of the many brain benefits of exercise to motivate you to get moving or keep moving.
“People who spend more time exercising daily are less likely to be depressed and have lower rates of anxiety,” says Ratey.
“Exercise acts as a natural antidepressant. It gives us a heightened sense of self-esteem and self-worth,” says Greg Chertok, sports psychology consultant and contributor to the American College of Sports Medicine.
Benchmarking progress in workouts and accomplishing more physical tasks in everyday life is a feel-good activity that builds confidence.
Exercise can also keep negative feelings at bay.
“The diagnostic criteria for depression can include appetite irregularity, lack of energy, tension and muscle aches,” says Dr. Farah Raqib, assistant professor and psychiatrist at Oregon Health & Science University. “Exercise can provide quick relief for each of these symptoms.”
“Stress never goes away. It’s a part of life. So it’s about developing better coping skills,” says Raqib. “Exercise is an excellent coping mechanism. When you’re anxious or afraid, your heart races. But regular exercises like yoga help reset the mind and body through breathing and relaxation techniques.”
Dr. Claudia Aguirre, a neuroscientist and mind-body expert, agrees, “Exhalation is the ultimate detox. If you’re stressed, the quickest way to get relief is to do whatever exercise you prefer. Get oxygen circulating in your body, and breathe out toxic carbon dioxide.”
Aguirre explains that on a molecular level, exercise is the opposite of stress, which kills brain cells and shrinks areas of the brain. Exercise instead boosts new cell growth and enhances survival of these brain areas.
“We know that exercise is connected to better memory and overall brain health,” says Aguirre. “Exercise breeds neurons. More neurons mean more ability to do everything, including retention and recollection.”
Moving your muscles and breaking a sweat induce proteins in the hippocampus, a part of brain that produces new neurons, which are nerve cells that communicate information. These proteins generated from exercise nourish existing cells and spark the creation of new ones.
In older adults, exercise training has been found to increase hippocampal volume by two percent, reversing age-related memory loss by one to two years, according to a study by the University of Pittsburgh.
The process that exercise incites to revitalize the brain and brain cells has the same effect on learning that it does on memory.
“Studies show that exercising moderately while learning enhances cognitive performance. But the key is in balance, as too much exercise can interfere with the learning process,” says Aguirre. “That said, going for a jog may enhance the learning process more so than doing another task like reading or solving crossword puzzles.”
Numerous studies of students across different grade levels have linked academic achievement scores to higher fitness levels. A two-year study published by the American Heart Association found that kids who had the best average standardized tests in reading, math, science and social studies were fit throughout the study, and the second-best academic performers were students who were not fit at the beginning but had become fit by the end of the study.
“Exercise is a terrific way to improve the learner because it turns on the attention system, the motivation system and the memory system,” says Ratey.
For those stumped by writers block or struggling with other forms of a creativity drain, exercise could be the ticket to igniting the imagination.
A recent study by Stanford University found that creative thinking improves while a person is walking or shortly thereafter. Researchers assigned standardized creative tasks to participants placed in different conditions — walking outside, sitting outside, walking on a treadmill inside, or sitting inside. Creativity levels were significantly higher for walkers versus sitters, and indoor walkers experienced the same boost of creative inspiration as those who strolled outdoors.
“Walking and moving get the brain ready to learn and think,” says Ratey. “That’s why you’re seeing the return of standing desks, treadmill desks and fit desks with an exercise bike underneath. For employers, it’s not just about workforce wellness. It’s about increased productivity.”
When it comes to getting the most brain benefit from exercise, consistency is the most important thing.
“Have a regimented workout schedule of something you enjoy doing. Whether it’s a spin class, gardening or walking, do it three to four times a week for 30 to 45 minutes,” says Raqib. “That’s a good place to start.”