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Everybody knows that staying active is the cornerstone of good health. But most people associate exercise with physical fitness alone while ignoring its positive impact on mental health.
There is enough scientific evidence to suggest that regular exercise can improve the way your brain functions, and this continues to be a topic of interest for researchers.
This article will take you through the different ways exercise can enhance your mood, memory, learning capacity, and cognition.
How Is Exercising Daily Helpful for the Body?
Different forms of exercise affect the human body differently and can deliver varied fitness results.
Endurance training, such as jogging, swimming, or cycling, teaches the body to become more efficient at utilizing fatty acids for energy production, increasing resistance to fatigue.
Resistance training, involving the use of free weights or machines, encourages the increase of the number of muscle fibers and the enlargement of individual muscle fibers. This can result in the ability to produce greater force while doing work. (1)
How Long in a Week Should You Exercise?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that the average adult should perform 150 minutes of endurance training type of exercise each week. This can be done on one day per week or can be broken up into smaller increments: 75 minutes on 2 days per week, 50 minutes on 3 days per week, etc.
Resistance training is also recommended on 2 or more days per week. This exercise should encompass all of the major muscle groups: core, chest, back, shoulders and arms, hips and legs. (2)
How Can Exercise Boost or Sharpen Your Memory?
“If structures of the brain are never challenged, they will never be forced to adapt and improve their functional capabilities.” (3) This rationale is the foundation for the idea that exercise can boost memory.
Endurance training facilitates the flow of oxygen to the brain and can result in new growth of neural cells, which can support memory, which otherwise tends to decline with advancing age. (4)
It creates more molecular targets such as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), (5) enhancing the transmission of information or impulses between neurons. This helps your brain to perform better, resulting in improved learning, thinking, and mood, as well as increased memory formation and retention.
Proprioception is a form of sensory information that relies on specialized receptors designed to respond to mechanical forces. These mechanoreceptors relay information about the impact of mechanical forces on the body’s internal environment to the central nervous system. (6) They can be found throughout the skin and in muscles, tendons, and fascial tissue, and they can sense distortions in these tissues.
Response to sensory information may only need to go as far as the spinal cord (such as an insect crawling on your skin), in which case a reflex response takes place. When this sensory information involves the brain, responses are more planned and calculated for a precise response (such as observing an obstacle in your path and moving around it).
When the brain is challenged in this way, cognition is practiced and enhanced, and this skill can be applied to other mental activities that involve reasoning.
What Positive Effects Does Exercising Have on Mental Health?
Regular exercise helps relieve anxiety, stress, and depression and foster better concentration, alertness, and a positive outlook on life. Here’s how:
- It helps reduce anxiety by taking your mind off whatever it is you are worried about.
- It accelerates the heart rate, which increases the level of endorphins, serotonin, and other neurochemicals while curbing stress hormones in the body. This helps alleviate anxiety and uplift your overall mood. (7)(8)
- It stimulates the part of the brain that allows you to manage your reactions to threats, even perceived threats, allowing you to use reason in stressful situations.
- It gives you a sense of self-control and accomplishment, which is great for your self-esteem.
- It releases tension from your bones and muscles to make your body more relaxed. (9)
- It physically tires you out and thereby promotes better sleep at night. A well-rested mind and body are less prone to mental health issues.
How Long Does Exercising Take to Show Brain-Boosting Results?
The brain-boosting results of exercise can begin immediately, but what is important is consistency. Embarking on an exercise program to enhance cognitive ability should be viewed as a lifestyle rather than a short-term activity. (10)
Is High-Intensity Exercising More Helpful for Boosting Memory?
According to Harvard Health Publishing, those who suffer from bouts of anxiety report that they find greater relief with higher levels of exercise. When anxiety is alleviated, cognitive function can be optimized. (11)
How Does Exercise Impact Different Areas of the Brain to Make It Work Better?
The following are the ways exercise stimulates different areas of the brain to improve memory, mood, reasoning, and cognitive function:
- The hippocampus plays a role in long-term memory. When this part of the brain is impaired, the ability to form new memories is inhibited. Exercise allows the hippocampus to facilitate a sense of well-being and allows for easy memory formation. (12)
- The amygdala manages fear response and conditioning. When this part of the brain is impaired, processing and working through emotions can become difficult. (13) Exercise strengthens the neural circuitry of the amygdala in order to experience emotional stimuli and respond appropriately.
- The prefrontal cortex is responsible for memory, planning, judgment, emotional regulation, and movement in the lower part of the body. When this part of the brain is impaired, problem-solving skills are diminished and regulating emotions can be challenging. (14)
- Exercise allows the prefrontal cortex to facilitate the cognitive abilities of strategizing and planning.
- The ventral tegmental area (VTA) regulates mood and manages the reward and motivation pathways of the brain. When this part of the brain is impaired, you are likely to experience depression. (15) Long-term exercise facilitates the production of tyrosine hydroxylase, a precursor to dopamine. Dopamine creates a sense of pleasure.
Can People With Mental Disorders Benefit From Exercising?
Yes, in more ways than one. For starters, exercise improves brain functioning and mood, as discussed earlier, which is a major plus for someone struggling with their mental health.
Plus, people diagnosed with mental health problems are more prone to chronic physical ailments such as arthritis, diabetes, asthma, and cardiovascular issues, and working out can help in that regard. Regular physical activity helps improve cardiovascular health and keeps the body fit, reducing the risk of such chronic illnesses. (16)
Exercise enhances different aspects of your health, for instance, regular exercise improves cardiovascular function and weight management, (17) boosts energy and mental alertness, (18) helps you sleep better and regulate your sleep pattern, (19) increases libido, (20) and reduces anxiety. (21)