Critter Corner:  What Are the Brain-Changing Benefits of Exercise?

Dear Angel,

I heard that exercise can not only help you stay young and fit but also has an effect on the brain. Still, I am too lazy to get off the sofa in the cold weather. Can you explain some benefits of exercise that will help convince me that I should start a program?

Thanks for your help!

Fi Tiness

Dear Fi,

When many of us think about the benefits of exercise, what comes to mind is typically better sleep, more energy, maintaining a healthy weight, stronger muscles, and a healthier heart. Many people don’t think about the benefits that exercise can have on one of the most important organs in our bodies: the brain.

Researchers have found that exercising is one of the most transformative things you can do to improve cognitive abilities, such as learning, thinking, memory, focus, and reasoning — all of which can help you become smarter and live longer. These are some ways in which exercise can boost your brain health:

  • Decreases anxiety: Studies have shown that every time your move your body, neurotransmitters, including dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine, get released into your brain.
  • Lifts mood: It only takes between 10 to 30 minutes of daily physical activity to instantly lift your mood. No gym membership? Take a short walk, or take the steps instead of the elevator.
  • Improves your focus and concentration: It has been found that a single workout can help improve your ability to shift and focus attention. This is an immediate benefit that can last for at least two hours after just 30 minutes of exercise!
  • Improves reaction times: Studies have also shown that one workout session can improve your reaction times — which means, for example, that you’re going to be faster to hit the brakes while you’re driving and you see a dangerous situation arise in front of you, such as a pedestrian crossing the road.
  • Promotes the growth of new brain cells: One of the most important benefits of exercise, scientists have found, is that it promotes neurogenesis, which is the birth of new brain cells. This is essential to improving cognitive function. Researchers have shown in rats and mice that running, for instance, increases the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a small part of the brain devoted to memory formation and storage.
  • Promotes communication among brain cells: Exercise can also improve the health and function of the synapses between neurons in the hippocampus, allowing brain cells to better communicate.
  • Protects your brain from aging and neurodegenerative diseases: Obviously exercising won’t completely prevent or cure normal cognitive decline in aging, but doing it consistently might help reduce or delay the onset of such diseases.

Many of us do at least three to four 30-minute workout sessions a week, but try to get out and do what you can! Keep in mind that you will get the most benefits out of aerobic exercise, which increases the heart rate and pumps more oxygen into the brain. Don’t forget that household activities such as intense mopping, raking leaves, vacuuming, and running up and down the stairs count, too.

Remember, be sure to check with a doctor before beginning any exercise program.

Hope this helps!

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About Renee Eder

Renee Eder is the Director of Public Relations for the Farr Law Firm, and gives the voice to the Critters of Critter Corner. Renee’s poodle, Penny, is an official comfort dog who she and her children bring to visit with seniors who are in the early stages of dementia at a local senior home once a month.