We are taught from an early age that exercise is good for our bodies, and with issues like obesity and heart disease on the rise we often see ad campaigns reminding us about the importance of regular exercise. But no one seems to be talking about the link between exercise and our mental health. When I introduce this concept to my coaching clients they often seem surprised and wonder why they have never heard about this until now.
But this idea isn’t new, research began in the 1990s. Scientists discovered that exercise could slow down the decline of our cognitive functions and several decades later researchers can now conclusively prove that exercise has a significant positive effect on learning, concentration, memory, motivation and our overall mental performance.
One of the biggest advocates for this research is Psychiatrist, and Clinical Assistant Professor at Harvard Medical School John Ratey. He originally became interested in the subject after stumbling across a study that took place at a high school in Illinois where the students were introduced to a revolutionary fitness program. The kids engaged in 40 minutes of intense exercise every day during the academic year and the results were astounding. Not only were the kid’s fitter and obesity levels reduced to about 3%, but the kids’ test scores dramatically increased. So much so that they went on to win an international competition in the subjects of maths and science.
In his book “Spark” Ratey explains that the reason we survived where many other species didn’t was because we got good at moving our bodies. Humans were constantly on the move – migrating, hunting or running away from danger. It is for this reason that our bodies and more importantly our brains evolved. The largest part of our brain and the last component to be added to the design was the pre-frontal cortex. This is the part of our brain responsible for planning, decision making, problem solving and other complex cognitive behaviours. According to researchers it is exercise that keeps this and other key parts of our brain healthy and functioning at their best.
But as time goes on and society moves forward, we are spending more time sitting down. These days we are top of the food chain, so we don’t need to hunt – food is delivered to us. Most of us sit behind a desk all day, and when we get home we often spend the evening in front of the TV. Exercise is seen as a leisure activity or even a chore for some people. When I ask my clients if they do any physical exercise they often laugh and say they don’t have time, or that they are too tired when they get home. The problem with this is that your brain hasn’t evolved to modern day living and it still needs you to move in order to stay healthy.
What happens when we don’t exercise?
Your brain is effectively a muscle. If you stimulate it with education and physical exercise it grows bigger and improves in performance. If you stop moving and learning, like any muscle that isn’t used the brain begins to shrink and deteriorate. Less blood flows to the brain and therefore there is a reduction in oxygen which is essential for the brain to function effectively. One of the key areas affected is the hippocampus. This is part of our limbic system and is responsible for creating and accessing memories, and how we interpret and deal with conflict or stressful situations. If key areas like the pre-frontal cortex and hippocampus are compromised the results are obvious – a lack of concentration, decreased motivation, cognitive impairment, and an increase in stress.
This may explain why mental health statistics are on the rise in young people, as they seem to be using technology more and exercising less.
How does exercise help our brains?
One of the most important discoveries in this field of research is a chemical called “Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor” (BDNF) which is released when we exercise. BDNF acts like a fertiliser for the brain – Our brain cells grow bigger and faster, but more importantly we are able to grow brand new cells (neuro genesis), which until fairly recently we didn’t think was possible. This is good news because it means that deterioration is reversible.
Our Hippocampus also grows in size and efficiency and our “Executive Function Network” the prefrontal cortex is stimulated, which as we mentioned earlier is the part of our brain that helps us focus, learn, and problem solve.
An unexpected discovery is that exercise can actually help people who suffer from ADHD. This condition is when a person finds it difficult to focus and stay motivated on specific tasks. This happens because a person with ADHD has fewer neural connections from the Nucleus Accumbens (the reward centre of the brain) to the pre-frontal cortex. This means that it doesn’t release the reward hormone dopamine properly which is the chemical that encourages a person to stay focused. The effects of exercise help the reward centre to activate more effectively and the extra dopamine alleviates the symptoms of ADHD.
Another important benefit is the impact that it has on our mood and well-being. This is because when we exercise the body releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin and endorphins which all help regulate our mood. Endorphins are similar to the drug morphine which gives a person a feeling of euphoria. This is where the expression “runner’s high” comes from. Some doctors are now encouraging patients with depression to introduce exercise as part of their treatment because the natural chemicals created in the body when exercising are like those in the anti-depressant tablets that they prescribed.
Cardiovascular exercise also burns cortisol which is a stress hormone that can be damaging to the cells and the organs of your body if a person is regularly exposed to stress or constantly experience anxiety.
Exercise can also be a good way to overcome an addiction, as you can substitute the cravings of the thing you are addicted to with the natural high of the chemicals produced when you exercise. Having a new activity to focus on that gives you the same buzz or a just sense of achievement can be a real game changer. Many of my ex-smoker clients have confirmed that this made a real difference when it came to staying off the cigarettes for good.
How can you get the benefits?
- The ideal is 20-30 minutes per day. The aim is to get your heart rate between 70-75% of its maximum for a total of 150 minutes per week
For maximum results:
- Exercising with a friend or in a group intensifies the effects because we are social creatures and being active with other people releases even more positive neurotransmitters.
- Activities with a variety of movements are best rather than repetitive exercises on a fixed indoor bike or treadmill. But any kind exercise is better than no exercise at all.
- Exercising outside is even better especially in nature. It’s been scientifically proven that people heal 50% faster if they have a window or a painting of nature in their hospital ward.
- Even better is a sport that uses both your body and your mind, so they are both getting a workout e.g. tennis, dancing, martial arts…
But don’t worry if you are put off by the word exercise or you feel intimidated at the prospect of joining a gym. Tests have shown that an activity as simple as going for a walk or taking the stairs can improve our creativity and focus by 60%, and the effects can last up to 10 minutes after you stop the activity. The point is finding ways to introduce more movement into your day!
We are built to move and if we don’t ever exercise our brain begins to shrink and key areas of the brain start to deteriorate. But these conditions can be reversed and repaired with regular exercise. Making some simple changes like walking to the shops and taking the stairs can make a big difference to our mental health and well being. Intense exercise can act like a factory reset for the brain and research shows that it can relieve the symptoms of, or even cure serious mental health illnesses like depression, ADHD and chronic stress. It also helps slow down the aging process and reduces the risk of conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. So, to put it simply if you do regular exercise you will feel happier, your mental performance/creativity will improve and you will be protected from mental illness and diseases. So, make time to start moving!
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