The brainy benefits of exercise


If you’ve ever left your car sitting in the garage for too long without using it, the risk is the battery will have gone flat or the engine will have developed problems. In just the same way you need to keep your body moving to keep your health and wellbeing in tip top condition.

By Dr. Jenny Brockis

Exercise and mental wellbeing

You may have noticed how, when you’ve got a lot on your mind, going for a walk or a jog helps to clarify your thoughts. You come back feeling energised and in a better mood. And because that effect results from the boost in blood flow and release of neurochemicals, exercising earlier in the day is ideal.

Research has shown that regular exercisers enjoy better mental wellbeing, with an average of 18 fewer days of feeling bad compared with the less physically active. In his book Spark!, John Ratey identified the cognitive and emotional benefits of exercising at the beginning of the day. But if that thought sends you into a complete tailspin because of all the other activities that consume your mornings, any time (except within two or three hours of bedtime) is good.

A number of studies have confirmed that supervised aerobic exercise has an antidepressant effect through boosting the release of the powerful mood-enhancing hormones dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.
No wonder a little bit of exercise makes us feel good.

Exercise for longevity

Taking a brisk 25-minute walk every day (taking the dog is optional but enjoyable for both) can add between three and seven years to your life by reducing the risk of depression and potentially warding off cognitive decline. Now there’s a bonus.

Exercise for smarter thinking and better memory

Research from the University of British Columbia has shown how regular aerobic exercise, the sort that makes you huff and puff, increases the size of the hippocampus, that part of the brain used for learning and verbal memory. It’s also the first part of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s, which is why exercise is so critical to your future brain health.

Engage in regular, moderate-intensity exercise such as a brisk one-hour walk twice a week for six to 12 months. Research by neurologist Scott McGinnis at Brigham and Women’s Hospital found that this moderate aerobic exercise led to an increase in volume of the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, the brain areas involved in controlling thinking and memory. The effect of exercise is felt fast. A single session is enough to elevate your attentional skills and focus for two hours as well as increase your reaction time. If you’re feeling a little sluggish and it’s only 9.30 in the morning, rather than hanging out for yet another coffee, why not get out for a quick walk or jog around the block and start to get fitter, faster and happier. Your brain will thank you for it.

Exercise and happiness

Science tells us exercise significantly boosts our happiness and reduces symptoms of anxiety, depression and stress. One large international study found that an hour of exercise a week reduced the risk of future depression by 15 percent, with the protective effect rising to 22 percent if the recommended 150 minutes per week was reached. Not a bad return on investment for avoiding a debilitating and potentially lethal illness!

Elsewhere American researchers found exercising regularly for 30 to 60 minutes is ideal to reduce the number of mental health days taken, especially when participating in team sports, going to the gym, aerobics and cycling. In this study researchers from Yale and Oxford asked 1.2 million Americans the question, ‘How many times have you felt mentally unwell in the last thirty days due to stress, depression or emotional worries?’ They found that being more physically active equated to feeling as good as the group who weren’t active but earned $25 000 more, indicating the strength of the happiness-boosting effect of exercise.

The positive benefits are quickly achieved. Just 20 minutes of exercise have been shown to boost your mood for up to 12 hours, according to researchers from the University of Vermont.

If you’re feeling a bit down, getting out for that 20 minutes can make a huge difference to the rest of your day. You’ll get a better result from a sustained 20 to 30 minutes rather than several shorter exercise breaks.

If life has lost some of its sparkle, regular exercise can help you extract more pleasure from your days, even when nothing else has changed. The protective effect of exercise comes from being active whatever your age; it’s never too late to start and gain the benefits. If you’re studying hard for exams, reducing stress through exercise is a great way to maintain a clear head and achieve better learning, and you’ll be feeling stronger and fitter too.

*Edited extract from Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life (Wiley) by Dr Jenny Brockis.
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Peninsula Kids – Spring 2020


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