Maybe you exercise to tone your thighs, build your biceps, or flatten your belly. Or maybe you work out to ward off the big killers like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But how about sweating to improve your mind? “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning,” says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain.” If you need a little extra incentive to lace up those sneakers, here are five ways that exercise can boost your brainpower.
It reverses the detrimental effects of stress.
Jumping on the treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes can blow off tension by increasing levels of “soothing” brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. What’s fascinating, though, is that exercise may actually work on a cellular level to reverse stress’s toll on our aging process, according to a 2010 study from the University of California—San Francisco. The researchers found that stressed-out women who exercised vigorously for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and inactive. Working out also helps keep us from ruminating “by altering blood flow to those areas in the brain involved in triggering us to relive these stressful thoughts again and again,” says study coauthor Elissa Epel, an associate professor of psychiatry at UCSF.
It lifts depression.
Research suggests that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. That may be because exercise appears to stimulate the growth of neurons in certain brain regions damaged by depression. What’s more, animal studies have found that getting active boosts the production of brain molecules that improve connections between nerve cells, thereby acting as a natural antidepressant. And a 2010 study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants’ levels of the brain chemical GABA, which typically translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety. Yoga can be used to complement—not substitute—drug treatment for depression, the researchers said.
It improves learning.
Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn. Interestingly, complicated activities, like playing tennis or taking a dance class, provide the biggest brain boost. “You’re challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination,” explains Ratey. “Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to grow.” Complicated activities also improve our capacity to learn by enhancing our attention and concentration skills, according to German researchers who found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after doing 10 minutes of a complicated fitness routine compared to 10 minutes of regular activity. (Those who hadn’t exercised at all scored the worst.)
It builds self-esteem and improves body image.
You don’t need to radically change your body shape to get a confidence surge from exercise. Studies suggest that simply seeing fitness improvements, like running a faster mile or lifting more weight than before, can improve your self-esteem and body image.
It leaves you feeling euphoric.
Yes, that “runner’s high” really does exist if you’re willing to shift into high-intensity mode. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training. Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. “You’ll feel really sparkly for the rest of the day,” he says.
It keeps the brain fit.
Even mild activity like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong. In a 2011 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Canadian researchers analyzed the energy expenditure and cognitive functioning of elderly adults over the course of two to five years. Most of the participants did not work out; their activities revolved around short walks, cooking, gardening, and cleaning. Still, compared with their sedentary peers, the most active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function, and they showed the least amount of cognitive decline. By the study’s end, roughly 90 percent of them could think and remember just as well as they could when the study began.
It may keep Alzheimer’s at bay.
The Alzheimer’s Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against the disease. Exercise appears to protect the hippocampus, which governs memory and spatial navigation, and is one of the first brain regions to succumb to Alzheimer’s-related damage. A recent study published in the Archives of Neurology suggests that a daily walk or jog could lower the risk of Alzheimer’s—or blunt its impact once it has begun. In 2000, Dutch researchers found that inactive men who were genetically prone to Alzheimer’s were four times more likely to develop the disease than those who carried the trait but worked out regularly.