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Why You Should Exercise Your Brain not just Your Body

Exercising is a huge part of our culture and is continually perpetuated in society through influencers on social media to advertisements on TV. Diet culture in general has taught us to have a distorted view of exercising. It has told us that in order to reach the highly-sought-after goal of losing weight you need to pay for a gym membership and stick to eating celery juice. What advertisements and influencers seldom discuss is the neurological phenomena that happens from a good workout. Scientists have known for quite some time that exercising naturally induces the hypothalamic pituitary axis to release a perfect combination of dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, giving you an instant mood boost also known as the “runners high.” Serotonin and dopamine are essential chemicals involved in mood regulation but also have a significant influence on cognitive processes like learning and memory retrieval. The good news is that you do not have to run a marathon for your brain to do so, you just simply have to be moving enough to elevate cardiorespiratory function. This looks like 30 minutes of aerobic exercise (swimming, dancing, walking, yoga) three to four times per week. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI’s) we know that exercising spikes serotonin and dopamine in the same brain regions where neurodegenerative diseases reside. So not only does physical activity boost feelings of high self-esteem, but research findings also suggest that it may help in reducing risk for developing neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. We tend to underestimate how much a good workout can drastically improve memory and attention span all the while facilitating neurochemical homeostasis. Neuroscientists have discovered that a consistent exercise regime (30 minutes for three to four days per week) can increase hippocampi volume and promote neuronal growth in the gray matter of the prefrontal cortex, helping you to remember more and concentrate longer. Just as working out can increase muscle mass, exercising can also increase brain mass specifically in the gray matter of the frontal lobes. Myelin production is yet another brain-altering effect of aerobic exercise. Myelin is the fatty substance that insulates the axons of each of our neurons and is responsible for protecting the axon from degenerating. We want more myelin because it accelerates neuronal communication. As we age, myelin production slows down and thus inflates the likelihood of brain cells dying and dendritic communication slowing. It is safe to say that exercising is not just advantageous for physical health but psychological health as well. The lesson to be learned here is that it is much more effective and easier to exercise out of appreciation for what your brain and body is capable of doing as opposed to exercising with the sole intent to lose weight and get the ‘perfect body.’ So with that being said, the next time you find yourself needing motivation to workout remember to exercise as if your brain depends on it, because it does.

woman doing pull up exercise
Becca Matimba/Unsplash

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