Work your body, help your brain



Shed pounds. Gain muscle. Get smarter.

Which one of these usually desired benefits won’t you find in a gym? Well, you can actually find them all.

While the best-known benefits of exercise are losing weight and gaining muscle mass, brain development is also a possibility. Aside from relieving stress and allowing you to think more clearly, research shows that exercise can actually create new nerve cells in the brain.

What’s that mean for you? It means that exercise will aid in a lot more than your vanity.

A study recently released by the University of Illinois shows this benefit is a measurable one. This study found that exercising for only 30 minutes translated into a direct improvement in brain function. Adults who exercised for 30 minutes had a five to 10 percent increase in brain function compared to a resting state.

As impressive as that may be, the short bout of physical activity improved more than function. The study also showed that participants, who were monitored before, during and after exercise, actually showed faster processing speeds in the brain when exercising. So not only did cognitive function improve after exercise, but the brain was working faster during exercise.

Here’s how it works: as your physical level increases, so too does the level of nerve cells. This increase creates higher, more balanced levels of neurotransmitters in the brain. With a balanced level of neurotransmitters, the brain is better able to pass information on to the rest of the body. In simple man’s terms: exercising does as much for your brain as it does for your body, even if you don’t know it.

“It makes sense that exercise makes other parts of our bodies healthy and it makes our brains healthy as well,” said Michael Bracko, an exercise physiologist in Calgary and a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine. “It increases blood and oxygen flow to the brain.”

You don’t have to hit the gym, either. Any sort of sustained physical activity that increases the heart rate will reap a little repayment for your brain. That includes playing sports, brisk walking, or even heavy housework.

Bracko said increased neurotransmitters allow the brain to better operate. When that happens, you are better able to focus on tasks at hand.

“Exercise helps you re-organize after you’ve worked out to figure out solutions to problems,” Bracko said. “Another huge benefit to the brain is reducing stress, which happens almost immediately. The first thing most people recognize is when they start to exercise they sleep better. You fall asleep quicker and get a more restful sleep and wake up feeling better.”

The benefits don’t stop there.

A study published in the Journal of Gerontology, for example, showed the brain boost was long-lasting. In the long-term study that tracked both exercisers and sedentary people, they found the people who exercised on average performed better cognitively than they did before they started exercising. Also, the study found these adults were also less likely to develop Alzheimer’s.

Exercising isn’t just a good idea for adults — children can improve their brain function too with a little physical activity.

One study in California tracked school children’s activity during physical education and recess times. They found that during the class periods immediately following exercise, the students were more receptive to learning and more alert.

Even if your job or career isn’t exactly mind-numbing, a little physical activity can go a long way in relieving stress.

“A lot of times people are feeling like they have no control. They are controlled by bosses, family, traffic,” Brackso said. “When you exercise, you are in complete control of yourself.”

Thomas Martin, a professor at Wittenburg University and an exercise physiologist, said that any group can gain brain benefits from exercising.

The best part, he said, is it doesn’t take long.

“If you don’t get enough sleep, you don’t feel like being physically active,” Martin said. “It’s the last thing you want to do. But the intensity of (exercise) gets the blood circulating and in 10 or 15 minutes it perks you up. You’re more alert and more vibrant. You’re more receptive to what you’re reading or what you’re working on.”

Martin suggested physical exercise should be used frequently in conjunction with activities that require you to use your brain. For example, he said a short jog will likely help a student focus more and recall things better while taking a test. Or a quick weight lifting session before work can get you better prepared for that big meeting or company-wide speech.

Suddenly, a quick exercise session doesn’t seem so bad — especially when the cognitive function is associated with so many other conditions and diseases.

“A number of studies have shown that physical activity and exercise can assist with learning, alertness, addressing depression and mood problems,” Martin said.

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