Think exercise is all about toned abs and weight loss? It
also makes you happier and smarter.
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Maybe you exercise to tone your thighs, build your biceps,
or flatten your belly. Or maybe you work out to ward off the big killers like
heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But how about sweating to improve your
mind? "Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in
terms of mood, memory, and learning," says Harvard Medical School
psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary
New Science of Exercise and the Brain. "Even 10 minutes of activity
changes your brain." If you need a little extra incentive to lace up those
sneakers, here are five ways that exercise can boost your brainpower
It reverses the detrimental effects of stress.
Jumping on the
treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes can blow off tension by increasing
levels of "soothing" brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and
norepinephrine. What's fascinating, though, is that exercise may actually work
on a cellular level to reverse stress's toll on our aging process, according to
a 2010 study from the University of California—San Francisco. The researchers
found that stressed-out UCSF.
It lifts depression.
that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained,
sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively
as antidepressants. That may be because exercise appears to stimulate the
growth of neurons in certain brain regions damaged by depression. What's more,
animal studies have found that getting active boosts the production of brain
molecules that improve connections between nerve cells, thereby acting as a
natural antidepressant. And a 2010 study found that three sessions of yoga per
week boosted participants' levels of the brain chemical GABA, which typically
translates into improved mood and decreased anxiety. Yoga can be used to
complement—not substitute—drug treatment for depression, the researchers said.
It improves learning.
the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain
cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.
Interestingly, complicated activities, like playing tennis or taking a dance
class, provide the biggest brain boost. "You're challenging your brain
even more when you have to think about coordination," explains Ratey.
"Like muscles, you have to stress your brain cells to get them to
grow." Complicated activities also improve our capacity to learn by
enhancing our attention and concentration skills, according to German
researchers who found that high school students scored better on high-attention
tasks after doing 10 minutes of a complicated fitness routine compared to 10
minutes of regular activity. (Those who hadn't exercised at all scored the
It builds self-esteem and improves body image.
You don't need to
radically change your body shape to get a confidence surge from exercise.
Studies suggest that simply seeing fitness improvements, like running a faster
mile or lifting more weight than before, can improve your self-esteem and body
It leaves you feeling euphoric.
"runner's high" really does exist if you're willing to shift into
high-intensity mode. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training.
Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your
speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four
times for a total of five sprints. "You'll feel really sparkly for the
rest of the day," he says.
It keeps the brain fit.
Even mild activity
like a leisurely walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off
memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong. In a 2011
study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Canadian
researchers analyzed the energy expenditure and cognitive functioning of
elderly adults over the course of two to five years. Most of the participants
did not work out; their activities revolved around short walks, cooking,
gardening, and cleaning. Still, compared with their sedentary peers, the most
active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function,
and they showed the least amount of cognitive decline. By the study's end,
roughly 90 percent of them could think and remember just as well as they could when
the study began.
It may keep Alzheimer's at bay.
Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against the disease.
Exercise appears to protect the hippocampus, which governs memory and spatial
navigation, and is one of the first brain regions to succumb to
Alzheimer's-related damage. A recent study published in the Archives of
Neurologysuggests that a daily walk or jog could lower the risk of
Alzheimer's—or blunt its impact once it has begun. In 2000, Dutch researchers
found that inactive men who were genetically prone to Alzheimer's were four
times more likely to develop the disease than those who carried the trait but
worked out regularly.