I have followed research about how our bodies impact our minds, and our minds our bodies for many years. I have also observed on a direct level how this works. Over many years of working with clients in psychotherapy, I have provided programs to people on an individual basis that allowed them to deal more effectively with depression and anxiety through exercise.
I recently came across an article published by BrainHQ from Posit Science. This company puts together software exercises for the brain to optimize brain growth and health.
They point out that your brain, just as is the case for your muscles, requires use. If you don’t use it, you will lose it. Not only do special exercises for the brain help increase connections in your brain, but physical exercise can increase positive functioning on the molecular level and the behavioral level.
The Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia did a study that showed that even 20 minutes of exercise facilitated memory functions and information processing.
When you work out, you increase your heart rate, which then pumps more oxygen to the brain. In addition, this causes the release of a wide range of hormones, which provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells.
Brain plasticity is stimulated by exercise, which in turn stimulates growth of new connections between cells in many important cortical areas of the brain. UCLA has recent research demonstrating increase in growth factors in the brain as a result of exercise. This makes growing new neuronal connections in the brain easier.
Many people I have worked with have come in to me talking of feeling very depressed. They are fatigued, lethargic, not interested in anything. They often feel very sad but don’t know why. While there can frequently be psychological reasons for this, I have found that often it can be improved markedly with the right kind of exercise program.
The same anti-depressant-like effects associated with “runner’s high” are associated with a drop in stress hormones. The anti-depressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, the area of the brain responsible for memory and learning, according to a study from Stockholm.
The time of exercise as well as the style of exercise increases your odds of raising cognitive functions. It was found that cycling rather than running showed an enhanced brain function during and after working out. Activities that utilize physical and mental demands, such as ballroom dancing, had a higher impact on cognitive functioning over just mental or just physical tasks alone. It seems clear that the best brain workouts integrate different parts of the brain including coordination, strategy and rhythm.
Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?
I don’t think it matters whether you approach this from the standpoint of wanting to improve your brain functioning or your physical conditioning, or your mental health. I believe they all go together. The key is to recognize the connections and then take advantage of them.
Pick exercises that challenge you – that make you think, that make you have to pay attention. Be aware that you need to make your mind work. Don’t try and make it easy for yourself. Keep changing it up, just as you need to do with anything you want to hold your interest. Once you feel you’ve mastered one type of exercise, switch to something else. Come out of your comfort zone. If you always do weight workouts at the gym, try a yoga class or meditation.
Try an exercise class that involves others such as a martial arts class. Test yourself and see if after working out your mind seems quicker, works faster and better.
Notice how you feel emotionally when you’re finished with some form of exercise. Have your spirits been lifted, and do you feel more positive?
It may not happen overnight, but if you stick with this kind of approach, within a few weeks you should notice a difference in how you feel. You’ll also probably notice an improvement in your physical shape, perhaps losing some weight, and firming up. While that may not be your intention, it’s a very nice perk. So set up a plan for yourself, and give this a try. Your brain will thank you, and your depression and overall mood will too!