The Brain Boost From Exercise

We all know that aerobic exercise is effective at reshaping and conditioning the body – but what about the effects it has on our brain? Does
aerobic exercise have any effect on our mental health?

You bet. If you’ve ever been under a lot of stress and decided to let off steam by taking a quick walk around the block, you know what physical activity can do for your state of mind. It makes you feel better, pure and simple. And while it’s not totally understood yet why this happens, study after study shows that exercisers routinely experience a mood lift from even low-intensity workouts. You don’t need a strenuous exercise session to reap the reward of “feeling better” – a walk will do the trick as much as a kick boxing class.

Of course, if you opt to walk, why not make it as rejuvenating as possible? In her book Self-Nurture, Alice Domar, Ph.D., recommends either a slow, mindful walk for relaxation or centering or a brisk, mindful walk for energizing. She suggests that you focus on your physical state – your heartbeat, your breathing, your muscle contractions – and avoid anxious or distracting thoughts in order to trigger a relaxation response.

It may help, she says, to count or mark repetitive rhythms such as “left, right” or “one, two” for walking and running; or the lap number during each stroke as you swim (one, one, one; two, two, two).

The U.S. Surgeon General’s Report on Physical Activity and Health lists many reasons to exercise, including several aimed at mental health:

build optimism, psychological hardiness, and positivity
enhance creativity and problem solving
uplift emotional spirits
enhance the ability to relax in stressful situations
improve self-image and enhance self esteem
Research has consistently shown that exercise stabilizes emotions and increases self-confidence while lowering anxiety, feelings of helplessness, depression, and hostility. In fact, studies have noted that the most effective antidepressant is a combination of exercise and psychotherapy.

Furthermore, exercise has been proven to reduce many of the physical symptoms of stress, in certain cases, more effectively than medication. For instance, exercise may reduce muscle tension better than tranquilizers. In addition, if you exercise regularly, you are likely to have a lower resting heart rate and lower blood pressure, and you should better handle the negative effects of stress on your body relative to these two responses.

Exercise can boost intellect, as well. Research has discovered a significant connection between exercise and enhanced intellectual function, memory, and imagination.

Finally, you will feel better after exercise simply because of the fact that you’ve “done something good” for yourself; there’s a natural sense of accomplishment and feeling of control over an important aspect of your life.

So use exercise to ward against “blue moods” and boost your brain as well as your body. After each workout, expect to feel more relaxed and anticipate a greater sense of well-being.

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