Neuroscientist shares 4 brain-changing benefits of exercise and how much she does weekly
When we think of the benefits of exercise, we usually think of better sleep, more energy, maintaining a healthy weight, stronger muscles, or a healthier heart.
These are all true. But we rarely consider the immediate effects physical activity can have on our body’s most important organ: the brain.
During my years of research as a neuroscientist, I have discovered that exercise 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.
How exercise improves your brain health
1. It decreases feelings of anxiety
Studies have shown that every time you move your body, a number of beneficial neurotransmitters including dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, and acetylcholine are released in your brain.
These substances can decrease feelings of anxiety and depression. (Think of them as a neurochemical ‘bubble bath’ for your brain.)
It only takes 10 to 30 minutes of daily physical activity to instantly get your mood back. No gym membership? Take a short walk or use the stairs instead of the elevator.
When I’m pressed for time, I’ll just take a few laps around my dining room table.
2. It improves your focus and concentration
In one of my lab experiments, I found that just one workout can help improve your ability to change and focus your attention.
This is an immediate benefit that can last for at least two hours after 30 minutes of exercise. I recommend activities that increase your heart rate, such as brisk walking, running, swimming, biking, tennis, or skipping rope.
Studies have also shown that a workout can improve your reaction times, which means, for example, that you’ll be much faster to grab that cup of coffee before it falls off the table.
3. It promotes the growth of new brain cells
One of the most important benefits of exercise, scientists say, is that it promotes neurogenesis, or the birth of new brain cells. This is essential for improving cognitive function.
Researchers have shown in rats and mice that running speeds up the creation of new brain cells in the hippocampus, a small hippocampal-shaped part of the brain dedicated to forming and storing memory.
Exercise can also improve the health and function of synapses between neurons in this region, allowing brain cells to communicate better.
4. It protects your brain from aging and neurodegenerative diseases
Imagine your brain as a muscle: the more you train, the stronger and bigger it gets.
Longitudinal studies in humans suggest that regular exercise may increase the size of the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex, both of which are susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases such as dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.
So while exercise does not prevent or completely cure the normal cognitive decline associated with aging, doing it regularly can help reduce or delay its onset. In many ways, exercise is like a supercharged 401 (k) for your brain – and it’s even better, because it’s free.
You don’t have to be a triathlete
Whenever I explain to people the benefits of exercise on the brain, the response I usually get is, “Okay, this is all very interesting. But just tell me the minimum amount of exercise that I need to get these effects. “
I try to do at least three to four 30-minute workouts per week. You will also get the most benefit from aerobic exercise, which increases your heart rate and pumps more oxygen to the brain.
If 90 to 120 minutes a week seems intimidating to you, start with a few minutes a day and increase the amount you exercise by five to 10 minutes each week until you reach your goal. And don’t forget that household chores – mopping, raking leaves, vacuuming, walking up and down stairs – count too.
Now the only question left is, when are you going to get up and start your brain transformation?
Wendy suzuki, PhD, is a neuroscientist and professor of neural sciences and psychology at the Center for Neural Science at New York University. She is also the author of “Good Anxiety: Harnessing the Power of the Most Misunderstood Emotion.” Follow her on Twitter @wasuzuki and on Instagram @ wendy.suzuki.