Exercise and the Brain

What if I told you there was a way to improve feelings of depression, improve the function of your memory, improve your attention, focus and mental acuity, decrease anxiety, regulate your mood, and that the biggest side effect of this treatment was becoming more toned and confident about yourself? The benefits of exercise are well known. We often talk about improved body composition, weight loss, improved cardiovascular health, and an overall sense of well-being. Until recently, after reading a book called “Spark” by Doctor John Ratey , I had no idea the benefits of exercise and the brain. Ratey would argue that the most important effect exercise has is on the brain, and that the rest of the improvements are all but secondary to the incredible way exercise improves the mind.

Exercise Protects our Mind

“Spark” synthesizes the last 10 years of research on exercises effects on the brain.  The findings are literally mind blowing.  Specifically the focus is on cardiovascular exercise.  Elevating the heart rate sends us into our fight or flight response, which is our primitive response to survive; run or fight, hunt or be hunted.  Exercise increases a substance in the brain called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).  BDNF is like the Miracle-Gro for our minds, tuning up our minds and improving learning.

Aging and the Brain

Interestingly, studies are showing a strong link between exercise and protecting against the development of dementia.  In a 5 year study of 4,615 elderly men and women, women over 65 who reported higher levels of activity were 50 percent less likely to suffer any form of dementia. We know as we age the body changes, and these changes occur in the brain as well. Exercise has the ability to help create new cells, increase blood flow, and improve our brain function even as we age.  Exercise can help ward off depression, which is critical in older adults because depression is a risk factor for developing dementia.

Stress and the Brain

In order to make a muscle stronger we place stress on it to encourage growth of muscle cells (hypertrophy). Too much stress (physical or mental) can result in injury, but inadequate stress results in atrophy (shrinking).  If the mind is not stressed with exercise and learning opportunities it will atrophy just like a muscle will, but exercise can build it up.  New MRI capability is showing larger brains and areas of new growth in people who perform aerobic exercise (cardio: running, biking etc.) versus their sedentary counterpart.

Theoretical Maximum Heart Rate and Recommendations

Doctor Ratey recommends: 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise four days a week at 60-65% your maximum heart rate for older adults. Younger individuals may need to increase the intensity to 75-90% maximum heart rate zone for optimal results. Our bodies were meant to move, and when we don’t use our bodies the way they were made, they start breaking down and wasting away. Remember, something is always better than nothing, and starting small is always safer.

To determine your theoretical maximum heart rate simply take 220 minus your age and from there you can calculate your specific training zones.  Heart rate monitors can be helpful and motivating.  The best mode of exercise is always the one you will be consistent with. This could be walking at a brisk pace, walk/jogging, biking, swimming, rowing or circuit training.  When performing aerobic exercise, always get cleared by your physician first. Focus on how each time you commit to the exercise you are developing a stronger, bigger, smarter and more efficient mind.  If you’re still not convinced, read “Spark” and you will be inspired.