Working out is essential to maintaining your physical health–we’ve known that for a while. We also know that exercise aides in balancing your gut microbiome, which contributes to improved gut health. Now, what if we told you that working out has even stronger effects on the brain, which impacts nearly every aspect of life as we know it?
Exercise has been proven to improve mental health, strengthen cognitive behavior and literally increase the size of your brain. It won’t make you the smartest person in the room (although you can go ahead and tell yourself that), but the benefits are worth exploring.
So, let’s get into it.
Exercise and Mental Health
You might be familiar with the concept of a “runner’s high,” which is described as the drop in stress hormones and a temporary feeling of euphoria. This “high” may be experienced through any form of working out, so if you’re not someone who loves the thrill of a long run, don’t worry!
We know, sometimes a temporary rush of positive energy isn’t enough to get you out of the house and into the gym. But regular exercise has also shown to have a powerful, lasting impact on mental health concerns like depression, anxiety, stress and even PTSD.
In fact, a Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health study found that running, for only 15 minutes per day or walking for one hour, reduces the risk of depression by 26%. Exercise has shown to increase the flood of neurotransmitters to the brain, specifically serotonin, which is your body’s “happy chemical. 90% of the body’s serotonin lives in the gut, which is an important reminder that in order to make this process work, your gut health needs to be just as in shape as your body is. Otherwise, there’s less of that happy chemical to make it to your brain in the first place. And the effect that these neurotransmitters have on the brain is crucial– it can lead to decreased social anxiety and improved processing of emotions which impacts mental health overall.
Cognitive Benefits of Exercise
Physical exercise plays an important role in maintaining cognitive function, as well. It has shown to improve the processing of emotions, increase attention span and focus, improve memory and decrease brain fog. Exercise (especially aerobic) is even believed to help those at risk for dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Huffing and puffing during your cardio? Keep it up, that’s what encourages increased brain function, believe it or not. Your spiked breathing pattern pumps oxygen through your bloodstream and to the brain. Once it reaches the brain, it produces neurons through a process called neurogenesis – an outcome believed to improve cognitive functioning, memory and decision making, and slow the development and progression of dementia and other neurological conditions.
Maybe you don’t enjoy the feeling of catching your breath after a set of jump squats (we don’t either) but trust us, your brain is thanking you.
Physical Improvements of Exercise
Exercise also has physical benefits as well (duh), but we’re not just talking about your abs and glutes here. When you work out, parts of your brain are literally growing… but don’t go telling everyone we told you that working out will make you smarter. These physical improvements do, however, encourage continued strengthening of your mental health and cognitive function.
Moving your body increases the thickness of your cerebral cortex (the part of your brain that’s responsible for decision making) and improves the quality of white matter in the brain. White matter is a tissue composed of nerve fibers– healthy white matter connects to the brain’s grey matter and speeds up communication between brain cells. These are a lot of technical terms, but here’s the summarized version: exercise empowers faster, more efficient communication between your brain cells, and when this happens you’re functioning at your best–mentally, physically and emotionally.
We’ve talked a lot about the benefits caused by oxygen being pumped to your brain (improved mental health, gut health and cognitive function). We’ve also shared the physical ways your brain changes, initiating improvements in brain function in the short- and long-term. So the next time you’re working out, consider that it’s not just to better the way you look in the mirror. It’s to improve every aspect of your life to make you a more well-rounded person overall.