Science Wednesday: You thought exercise was for your body. But it’s really for your brain.

Obsessed am I with this idea! So much so, that I’m channeling my inner Yoda this morning as I ponder the thought.  Sometimes I think we fall into the trap of regarding exercise as a tool for getting tight abs and lean legs and nice arms and whatever other physically-pleasing visual benefits we have on that list of attributes we all have in our heads for what we’re going to have “when my life is perfect.”

This is your brain on exercise: wildly functional. (Image courtesy of samuiblue at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
This is your brain on exercise: wildly functional. (Image courtesy of samuiblue at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

But as I discovered this past Sunday morning when I woke up in a funk and turned it all around with a great walk/run with my hubby in the park near our home – and as basically everyone in the research community who knows what they’re doing has proven, again and again and again – exercise is really for our brains.

Here’s just some of the science out there. The bolded text is mine, in case you’re reading this in a hurry. 🙂

From the Harvard Men’s Health Watch:

[R]egular, moderately intense exercise…helps maintain healthy blood pressure and weight, improves energy, lifts mood, lowers stress and anxiety, and keeps the heart healthy, all of which contribute to brain health. But exercise also stimulates brain regions that are involved in memory function to release a chemical called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF rewires memory circuits so they work better. “When you exercise and move around, you are using more brain cells,” says Dr. Ratey, who is also the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (2008). “Using more brain cells turns on genes to make more BDNF.”

The kicker? Only the brain can manufacture BDNF. No pills exist that mimic its effects. And guess what you have to do to manufacture it? You guessed it: exercise. (Read the full article here.)

Here’s an excerpt from another study, from Trends in Neurosciences:

Extensive research on humans suggests that exercise could have benefits for overall health and cognitive function, particularly in later life. Recent studies using animal models have been directed towards understanding the neurobiological bases of these benefits. It is now clear that voluntary exercise can increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and other growth factors, stimulate neurogenesis, increase resistance to brain insult and improve learning and mental performance.

The only problem I have with that statement is the idea that exercise “could” have benefits for overall health. I know that researchers have to couch their findings in very specific terminology for all kinds of very legitimate reasons, but I think we can put this finding in the “DONE DEAL” category. I have never met a person who was active on a regular basis who did not report their overall quality of life being massively improved as a result.

And one more, from one of my favorite popular-science books on the subject, Brain Rules (this is from page 24 of the paperback edition published in 2009):

The benefits of exercise seem nearly endless because its impact is systemwide, affecting most physiological systems. Exercise makes your muscles and bones stronger, for example, and improves your strength and balance. It helps regulate your appetite, changes your blood lipid profile, reduces your risk for more than a dozen types of cancer, improves the immune system, and buffers against the toxic effects of stress. By enriching your cardiovascular system, exercise decreases your risk for heart disease, stroke, and diabetes. When combined with the intellectual benefits exercise appears to offer, we have in our hands as close to a magic bullet for improving human health as exists in modern medicine.

How’s that for a payoff?

By the way, if you still happen to think movement isn’t mandatory, I’ll leave you on this Science Wednesday with one parting thought: the biggest minds in Silicon Valley regularly take walks – and even walking meetings. There’s something to that idea of movement and great ideas coming together. I’m just sayin’.

Yesterday’s Every48 workout: A slightly-unplanned REST day. I really wanted to get a workout in but didn’t. Today I shall get to my track workout – on time this week. (I’ll leave earlier to beat the traffic.)

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