Our mountain community is filled with opportunities to be physically active: gentle strolls along the Blue River, a 5K charity run or the Leadville 100. But how much exercise does a person need to be fit and what are the overall benefits? Studies about exercise efficacy abound from the practical (30 minutes of brisk walking daily) to the newfangled 4x4 theory (four minute bursts of ultra-intense activity, four times per week).
More important than how we keep active are the positive results we experience from this activity. And among the many unexpected benefits of exercise are its multiple effects on the brain. Most of us understand that exercise decreases our risks for heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, diabetes and more. We also recognize that it can improve how we look on the outside. But we are learning more about how exercise makes our insides work better, too, and in particular, our brain.
Exercise has been found to:
In a six-month study at the University of British Columbia, older women who exercised aerobically had markedly better memories – recalling more words and items in tests – than control groups that just lifted weights or didn’t exercise at all. Though the brain shrinks with age, exercise increases both oxygen flow and the levels of the neuron-booster BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) which, as a brain saver, beats mental drills like crossword puzzles.
Make New Skills Stickier
Credit BDNF again as this protein helps cement memory. In a University of Copenhagen study, volunteers who engaged in a vigorous 15-minute cycling workout right after learning a new computer skill retained it much better the following week than those who exercised beforehand or not at all.
During exercise, more oxygen-rich blood flows to the frontal lobes, the area responsible for executive function, (thinking ahead, reasoning and reducing impulsivity), which helps you keep yourself in check. An overview of studies published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine indicate that kids and young adults who worked out right before test-taking showed better concentration and self-control than non-exercisers.
Relieve Anxiety and Depression
A regular exercise program boosts endorphins and the neurotransmitter norepinephrine both of which may improve mood. Anxiety can impinge breathing patterns while exercise, which often demands patterned breathing, alters blood chemistry and therefore mood.
In “Spark,” his book about exercise science, Dr. John Ratey notes that physical activity increases one’s fight-or-flight threshold making you better able to handle personal slights, work pressures and disappointments. Muscles relax, mood-moderating neurotransmitters (like serotonin and dopamine) are boosted and the body’s stress response to the hormone cortisol is reduced. So while exercise can’t make everything better, it may help you handle the bumps of life more steadily.
Boost Your Zzzz’s
As long as exercise isn’t undertaken right before bedtime, its ability to improve sleep has been recognized by multitudes of researchers as well as parents who gently transfer their sleeping children from the family car to bed after a multi-match soccer tournament.
Having scanned the results of many local athletic competitions which include age participation categories from “Under 9” through “60+,” it’s clear that exercising in Summit County is an essential part of our lifestyle. And it may also be responsible for the engaging conversation you held later the same day.