Exercise isn’t just for your body- put in the work and help your brain stay as strong as your biceps!

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There are all sorts of reasons to exercise; some people want to lose weight, others just want to stay in shape. Some people work out competitively in large commercial gyms, while others enjoy body weight movements in the comfort of their home. But what most of these people have in common is that they’re exercising to improve their body- it’s no secret that 30 minutes of exercise several times a week can make a huge impact on your physical health. But did you know that regular exercise can also improve your mental health? So when you make the commitment to fitness, not only are you helping your body, but your brain reaps the benefits as well.

Exercise and the Brain

According to Harvard Health, “exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills.” A study was done at the University of British Columbia that showed that regular aerobic exercise (more on this later) appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s responsible for verbal memory and learning. Is it a coincidence that as we age, we tend to be more forgetful, and we also tend to not exercise as regularly (or at all) like we did when we were younger? I don’t think so. Regular exercise reduces insulin resistance and inflammation, and it boosts the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, all of which contribute to a healthy mental state.

A new case of dementia is detected around the world every 4 seconds. At this rate, by 2050 more than 115 million people will experience some type of dementia. This means that approximately 1 in every 85 people worldwide will suffer from dementia by 2050. If that isn’t enough to get you moving, perhaps some of these additional benefits are.

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Brain Benefits

In addition to improving cognitive impairments, exercise is known to reduce stress and anxiety and improve a person’s mood and quality of sleep- all of these things contribute to an overall improved quality of life. When you exercise, blood flow to the brain is increased, and since blood flow is what brings the brain oxygen and nutrients it’s safe to say that exercise is essential to healthy brain functioning.

Depression slows down the brain’s ability to process information (hence, memory loss), but exercise speeds up the production of dopamine and serotonin; 2 important chemicals that lead to improved mood and boost endorphins.

Cortisol is known as the “stress hormone”; when you’re feeling stressed out, your cortisol levels are heightened and your brain cells are depleted. That explains why sometimes it’s hard to think clearly during times of extreme stress or worry. But exercise lowers cortisol levels, effectively lowering your stress level and making it easy to think clearly again. So the next time that mountain of laundry is getting you down or your kids are driving you crazy, pick up your dumbbells or go out for a brisk walk and I guarantee you’ll feel better when you’re done.

Think you’re too busy to exercise? Think again.

You don’t have to get into competitive weightlifting in order to experience the brain benefits from regular exercise; you don’t even have to leave the house! Recent studies have shown that regular aerobic exercise is all you need to get the blood flowing to your brain. Aerobic exercise is anything that gets your breathing up and your heart pumping, and this will look different for everyone depending on their current level of fitness. While some people may need to run to get that “out of breath” feeling, others can just go for a walk around the block.

Harvard recommends half an hour of physical activity 4-6 days a week; if you don’t have a background in fitness, it’s recommended to start small and work your way towards larger goals. Start by walking for 10 minutes 3 times a week and up that to 20 minutes 5 days a week once your body feels ready. If walking isn’t your thing, you can try dancing, swimming, or playing a sport (tennis and basketball are great sources of cardio!). You can even turn your household chores into exercise by vigorously mopping, vacuuming, or doing yard work.

The idea is to get your heart pumping to the point that you’re breathing heavy and sweating lightly. You don’t have to be doubled over in pain to see results (in fact, you shouldn’t ever feel this way during or after exercise). Talk to your doctor before beginning a new exercise routine, and if you have the time and the budget, consider joining a group workout class or hiring a personal trainer so that you have a trained professional supervising your progress. It also doesn't hurt to have someone to keep you accountable!

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