Everyone is familiar with the main benefits of exercise such as a reduction in body fat, improved heart health and an increase in muscle size and strength. But what about the brain power?
These physical improvements can be achieved by participating in a routine exercise program combining strength training and cardiovascular conditioning. However, exercise also has a powerful effect on the brain that can boost mood, improve memory, as well as enhance mental focus and motivation.
How to boost your brain power with exercise
Many people who participate in endurance sports will often experience what is called the “runner’s high”, best described as a sense of euphoria coupled with a diminished sensation of pain.
Scientists attribute this phenomenon to the release of feel-good chemicals called endorphins (which are opioid-based peptides) and endocannabinoids (which are a natural endogenous form of THC, the active chemical found in marijuana).
Endorphins aren’t the only feel-good chemicals released from your brain during exercise. Research has shown that the concentration of the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine also increase during exercise due to stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system.
These powerful chemicals transmit signals between neurons in your brain, influencing the quality of your sleep, motivation, sexual arousal, mental focus, moods and energy levels.
GABA is another neurotransmitter that is released during exercise, which has a calming effect on the brain. Studies show that low-intensity activities such as yoga, Tai Chi, and walking can reduce stress and anxiety by increasing levels of GABA in the thalamic region of the brain.
Conditions that are exacerbated by stress such as depression, anxiety, and chronic pain have been treated with drugs that increase levels of GABA. But, it appears that exercise may be an effective and safer alternative to medication for stress and anxiety.
In other research, neuroscientists have discovered that the region in the brain that regulates mood, learning, and memory called the hippocampus is smaller than normal in depressed individuals. Regular exercise supports nerve cell growth in the hippocampus (called neurogenesis), which improves nerve cell connections and helps to alleviate depression.
Addressing depression with effective therapies such as exercise is crucial because 1 in 10 adults in the United States struggles with a mood disorder, which impacts workplace productivity and long-term social stability.
One study published in the Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine by Neuroscientist James Blumenthal set out to assess the effects of aerobic exercise on 156 adult volunteers with a major depressive disorder.
The participants were split into 3 groups:
- Group #1 was treated with an antidepressant drug only.
- Group #2 used a combination of exercise and an antidepressant drug.
- Group #3 used exercise only as treatment.
The total exercise performed was 3 sessions per week for 30 minutes of walking or jogging at 80-90% of individual maximum heart rate.
At the end of the 16-week study, the researchers were surprised to find that all three treatment methods yielded virtually equal results. A cross-section of the three groups totaling 83 participants were officially declared depression free.
Intrigued by the comparable results, the researchers decided to follow up with the participants 6 months after cessation of treatment, and what they found was remarkable:
- In group #1(medication only): 38% of the participants relapsed into depression.
- In group #2 (exercise + medication): 31% of the participants relapsed into depression.
- In group #3 (exercise only): 8% of participants relapsed into depression.
The researchers also found that for every additional 50 minutes of exercise per week, there was a 50% decrease in the odds of being classified as depressed. These findings suggest that a moderate aerobic exercise program three times per week for 30 minutes each session is an effective treatment for patients with major depression.
The physiological explanation as to why the exercise-only group had such positive outcomes compared to the medication groups was unclear. However, Dr. Blumenthal speculated that the outcomes may have more to do with psychological factors by stating:
“One of the positive psychological benefits of systematic exercise is the development of a sense of personal mastery and positive self–regard, which we believe is likely to play some role in the depression reducing effects of exercise.”
The amazing brain power boosting benefits of exercise extend beyond just improving mood to include delaying aging of the brain itself. Exercise increases blood flow, delivery of oxygen and glucose to your brain, as well as removing harmful waste products.
Exercise has also been shown to initiate the growth of cerebral blood vessels and stimulate synapses by preserving acetylcholine receptors that help slow cognitive decline, and may even prevent diseases of dementia such as Alzheimer’s.