The Surprising Link between Exercise and Your Brain

Many people incorrectly associate exercise with feeling exhausted. On one level it would seem to make sense that a purposeful expansion on energy would leave us drained and unable to focus. Surprisingly though, this is far from the truth.

In my own life, and from the scientific research I have encountered, this is not the case at all. There is often an initial period of exhaustion immediately following physical exercise but it is quickly replaced by a feeling of rejuvenation, a new found energy and clarity of mind.

It’s not always easy to do (in fact it rarely is!)

In the speaking and training work I do nowadays, I end up flying to various events almost every week and it is all too easy for me to become sedentary and neglect physical exercise. When a few days go by without getting my heart rate up, I start notice the negative effects. Not only do I feel physically sluggish but my mind is hazy and not as sharp.

Do it anyways, it’s worth it.

I have to make time in my travels for keeping active but the benefits are worth it. I feel a greater sense of well-being both physically and mentally, and it keeps me on top of my game in the speaking circuit.

What does the Science tell us?

I recently finished reading a book by John Ratey, entitled Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It was an interesting read on the subject and helped to confirm many of the theories I had generated in my own mind.

After analyzing the latest scientific literature, conducting interviews and clinical research, the conclusion reached is that frequent cardio workouts of moderate-high intensity improves mental and psychological health in addition to helping us physically.

On a cellular level, research links physical exercise to new cell growth in the brain and also to the production of various chemical compounds that improve how our bodies handle blood sugar and establish connections with our nervous system. It is the most powerful tool for optimizing our brain function.

What I find particularly interesting are the studies that have been done around teaching students fitness and incorporating it in an immersive way into their school routine. The results are remarkable in how the students perform better academically but perhaps even more important are the mental health benefits.

Mental Health

I taught as a part-time college professor for a few years when I was starting my speaking career (as one of my risk mitigation strategies of leaving a full-time engineering position) and I was both surprised and perturbed by the mental health issues that were prevalent in many of the students.

Every semester I would receive a number of official accommodation letters for students with anxiety, depression and other related challenges but even more concerning was the large number of the undiagnosed students that exhibited clear indicators of mental health challenges. Whether for better or for worse, I have developed a sense for noticing mental health issues in others, especially anxiety and depression, because of my own journey with mental health (I’ll leave the details of this for other articles). The technology era hasn’t helped in my opinion, as many students are lost in their electronic devices and use them as a crutch to avoid social situations and encounters.

The lack of regular exercise certainly isn’t the only cause or attributing factor to mental health issues with students but it is at least a contributor. Exercise has been shown to have beneficial effects on anxiety, depression, addictions, attention deficit and hormonal changes. The studies on students who have have been immersed in daily exercise confirms these positive effects.

What can we do about it in our own lives?

This is the easy part, at least answering the question is, although the daily implementation is a different story. If we make time each and every day for some sort of physical exercise, we’ll not only feel great physically but improve our brain function as well.

The key is finding something that you enjoy doing that gets your heart rate up and then simply incorporate it into your routine so that you are doing it on a regular basis. For some people, working out in the gym is the answer. I can’t stand being stuck in a gym so I’ve found outdoor activities that work for me. I’m not as diligent as I would like to be but I’m getting better all the time! What makes it that much easier is when you really feel the connection for yourself and start reaping the cognitive benefits of daily exercise.