Fit Tip: Mental Fitness

Posted On Mar 12, 2021 By Amy Kiser Schemper

Woman using a BowFlex Treadmill.

When you think of the benefits of exercise, most of us think first of the physical effects of working out. Aesthetically, we think of losing weight or reaching a certain size, as well as getting stronger, leaner muscles. We are also reminded regularly that working out lowers our risks for many chronic illnesses and health conditions, improves our immune system, and increases energy.

When it comes to our mental and emotional health, we also hear a lot about the benefits of physical activity. We know getting active produces endorphins and raises serotonin levels, and people who workout consistently have lower levels of anxiety and depression.

What we don’t hear as much is how beneficial exercise is for our brain health. Exercise is one of the most transformative things we can do to protect our brains, and one of the most accessible. Our brain experiences both immediate and long lasting effects of physical activity. All of the ways working out gives us a healthier body--weight maintenance, better sleep, lower anxiety levels, lower blood pressure, reduced inflammation---would have to lead to a healthier brain, right? Sure, that makes sense, but the science goes well beyond that.

Exercise actually changes our brain. The prefrontal cortex, which is critical for decision making and planning, becomes thicker and better connected with physical activity. Many studies suggest that both the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex have greater volume in those that workout over those that are less active. In addition, newer research shows that aerobic exercise seems to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for memory and learning.

All these positive exercised-induced effects on our brain health help us in so many wonderful ways, but here are a few key Brain Benefits that you can get from exercise:

  • Exercise helps improve cognitive functions like memory and concentration. One recent study of 450 participants showed those who exercised regularly scored higher on memory and thinking tests.
  • Getting moving improves focus. That energy burst we feel during and after exercise? It’s not just about those endorphins to improve our mood (although we like those too). It’s about the boost in the brain’s dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin---all responsible for focus and attention.
  • Physical activity protects our brain against diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia. When we move, our blood pressure regulates and increases blood flow to our entire body, especially our brain. Improved cerebral blood flow can lower our risk for vascular and neurodegenerative diseases. Long terms studies support this.

The best part is any type of exercise can boost your brainpower! One study showed even groups of people who just increased their step count daily had higher total brain volumes than their sedentary counterparts. We do know that aerobic exercise is specifically associated with that increased hippocampus mentioned above, so always a good idea to make sure your heart is pumping! Try out my workout below for a true full body (and brain) workout.

Exercises for Brain Health

Do each for 30 seconds then repeat!

  • March/Jog
  • Cross Body Heel Tap
  • Cross Lateral Reach Across
  • Lunge Knee Cross
  • Shoulder tap plank

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Mental Health and Exercise

woman on an exercise bike