Fun fact: Our brains behave like muscles. And how do we strengthen the other muscles in our body? We exercise! In this way, our brains are no different and they too benefit from regular physical exertion.
Most of us have a love/hate relationship when it comes to exercise, and we are all now well aware of all the benefits that come from breaking a sweat, but what impact does it have on our brains?
Here, Lysn psychologist Breanna Jayne Sada reveals how exercise really affects us and what it means for our overall emotional wellbeing:
Yes, this one is probably common knowledge by now but if you didn’t know, exercise releases chemicals that can have a positive effect on our mood. One thing you may not know though—different types of exercises have different effects. Intense exercise increases the release of those feel-good chemicals such as endorphins, adrenaline, serotonin and dopamine. It mimics some of the same effects that doctors are trying to attain with anti-depressant medication.
These exercises are great for creating that instant mood-raising chemical high, whereas less intense exercise can have a different effect. For example, yoga can increase body awareness, relieve stress, sharpen attention and concentration, and calm and centre the nervous system.
Age and genetics are outlined as the greatest risk factors for developing cognitive decline, however staying sedentary for too long can have a similar effect. Studies have shown that regular physical activity helps to stop the brain from slowing down, because when we’re working up a sweat, the body produces brain derived neurotrophic factor which helps connect brain cells.
When we exercise, we increase our heart rate and more oxygen is pumped to the brain, which ultimately results in the growth of new brain cells. (I wonder if that makes up for the ones some of us might have lost drinking on the weekend!).
Regular exercise reduces the risk of feeling stressed because it alters part of our brains called dorsal raphe nucleus. This is the part of the brain that is responsible for mood regulation and for alerting us to the presence of stress.
Additionally, according to research, exercise also reorganises our brains to enable us to handle stressful situations better. Most people don’t know that stress actually temporary impairs your memory—so that’s reason enough to get moving to ensure you don’t feel stressed too often!
We’ve already heard about how exercise can reorganise our brains to handle stress, but exercise can do a lot more for us mentally. If you opt for a physical activity that requires both mental and physical exertion, say a dance class that requires integration of co-ordination and rhythm, such an activity has been shown to have positive impacts on cognitive function that just physical exercise alone.
Have you ever thought that your brain was naturally wired to be negative? You have the power to change this through many ways and exercise is one of them! When we exercise, our brains release a chemical called dopamine which is a neurotransmitter in the brain necessary for our happiness. Many studies suggest that as we get older however, we start to lose our stores of dopamine. Exercising regularly will ensure that our brains maintains a positive outlook and don’t slip into a negative mindset.