Get moving and reap the benefits

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In his book Spark, Dr. John Ratey draws on evolutionary biology, psychology and neuroscience to make the case the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain — building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are simply side effects. “The neurons in the brain connect to one another through ‘leaves’ on treelike branches,” explains Ratey, “and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.”

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The treelike branches in our brains are neural-pathways, connections between neurons. They are formed when neurons communicate with each other via messenger molecules or neurochemicals. Our thoughts, behaviors and environment determine which neurochemicals are released and therefore what kind of neural-pathways are formed. This in turn dictates how our brain functions. When we exercise, our brains are flooded with a stream of neurochemicals such as serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine, brain derived neurotrophic factors (BDNFs) and other growth factors.

Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is often described as the policeman of the brain because it helps “keep brain activity under control.” It regulates our mood and influences impulsivity, anger and aggression. Depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsiveness are all consequences of runaway brain activity, induced by low serotonin levels. As such, they can all be, if not cured, at least mitigated by regular exercise.

Exercise is a form of stress, and your body responds to it by going into “fight or flight” mode. Your brain releases norepinephrine and cortisol, which temporarily cranks up your heart rate, expands your bronchioli to allow more oxygen into the lungs, contracts your muscles, boosts your energy, enhances your attention and sharpens your short-term memory. From an evolutionary standpoint, this response was super helpful. It granted us temporary superpowers when we were hunting, or being hunted.

While those superpowers can still be useful today, in small doses, chronic stress has detrimental effects on brain functioning. Inactivity makes us more prone to chronic stress. When we enter fight or flight mode, but fail to move around, the brain continues to produce stress hormones and send stress signals to the body. Long periods of stress coupled with inactivity causes one’s brain to acclimate to a constant state of stress, sacrificing long term recall for short term memories that are associated with the source of our stress. The body will burn sugar and store fat to provide the brain with quick energy, causing us to feel tired, gain weight and crave junk food. Exercising allows us to “work out” our existing stress, and it also moderates our brain’s response to future stressors, enabling us to be more composed and resilient in stressful situations.

Dopamine plays many roles in different parts of the brain, but it is most closely associated with learning, satisfaction, attention and movement. This neurotransmitter is often called the reward drug, because it is responsible for the good feelings we experience when we eat, have sex or exercise. Exercise-induced dopamine doses give the brain a slight sense of euphoria, which can linger throughout the day, making us feel happy and accomplished. Any activity that involves dopamine can become addictive, and working out is no different. Exercise paves healthy new addiction pathways in the brain, priming us to reap more rewards the next time we work out.

BDNF has been dubbed “miracle grow for the brain.” BDNF belongs to a class of proteins called “factors,” and it really does work miracles for our noggins. According to Ratey’s research, BDNF “improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the natural process of death.” It also happens to be one of the wonderful chemicals that is created when we exercise. Studies have shown that students who get their blood pumping before school, by riding a bike, running, jogging or even just walking, have elevated levels of BDNF throughout the day, giving them a noticeable edge over their sedentary peers.

So, as it turns out, exercise isn’t just for athletes, meatheads and narcissists. It can be a useful tool for sharpening your mind, leveling your emotions and, as an added bonus, preparing your body for swimsuit season.

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