If I asked you to list the benefits of exercise, your mind would likely jump to losing weight, gaining muscle, and maybe even increasing energy. But would it go to increasing focus? Decreasing anxiety and depression? Growing brain cells? Learning faster?
When we think of the beneficial impacts of physical activity, we tend to focus on the physical and aesthetic results: a flat tummy, toned arms, a bigger butt. What we often overlook are the effects on the brain.
We all know exercise is good for us, but how good is it really?
Exercise promotes the formation of new brain cells which increases our ability to form new connections and learn (Ratey, 2008). Forget about the dumb jock stereotype, exercise actually makes you smarter!
Ever walked into a room and suddenly forgot why you even went there? Exercise can even help with memory. Exercise works to deepens brain connections and strengthen long-term memory processing (Ratey, 2008). Okay, maybe it won’t grant you photographic memory, but at least it will help you not forget your mom’s cat’s birthday.
Just like a muscle, the brain can be trained. The rush of hormones and neurotransmitters to the brain during exercise is equivalent to a brain workout. Not only are you strengthening your body, but also your mind.
So next time someone asks you what you’ll be working on at the gym, just say your brain (it’s the truth!).
This all relates back to our evolutionary roots, where movement of the body equated to survival. Activities like running from predators or climbing trees were crucial, and remembering where and how to do them was a matter of life or death. Now that we live in a world of endless scrolling and binge watching netflix, our brains are out of shape.
Exercise acts as an attention cue for the brain, and triggers us to focus (Ratey, 2008). So, as far as our brains are concerned, if we are not moving around, then there’s no need to learn anything. The bottom line here is to just move!
As for the three menaces of today’s time – stress, anxiety, and depression – physical activity also proves to be a hero. Think of it like this: just like exercise makes us stronger by first breaking muscles down, exercise makes our minds more resilient by first experiencing the stress from a workout. The stress on the brain caused by physical activity makes us better able to handle future stress, like fighting wolves with our bare hands.
So, as long as we give ourselves time to recover, dealing with mental stress and anxiety will become easier as the brain becomes more used to it (Ratey, 2008).
When it comes to depression, regular exercise acts as a stabilizer – it adjusts hormone levels to their optimal state (Ratey, 2008). In other words, it’s a way in which we can trick our brain into coming out of hibernation, a term often used to describe depression. Although exercise may not cure these conditions, it does promote mental well-being.
Challenge yourself to go for a run or a quick workout next time you feel “off”, and you might be surprised with how you feel afterwards!
Another way that exercise benefits the brain is through social interaction. Humans are social creatures that thrive around others, so combining exercise with human interaction pushes all the right buttons in the brain! (Ratey, 2008) The high energy and fun group classes offered at CrossFit 6S are a perfect example of a body and brain workout. You can challenge your body while also getting an optimal brain workout, and have fun!
While exercise may not exactly be the solution to our problems, it sure is a good start!
Reference: Ratey, J. (2008). Spark; The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. New York, NY: Little, Brown and Company.