Healthy Lifestyle

Boost Your Brain: Regular Exercise Has Numerous Mental Benefits

Published: Jan. 21, 2020

We know we should get off the couch and go outside or to the gym.

But finding the motivation to begin or sustain an exercise routine can be a struggle. When you feel depressed, tired, anxious, overwhelmed or discouraged, exercise can be the last thing you want to do. 

That’s exactly why you should get moving. In addition to the physical benefits of exercise, research continues to shed light on its impact on areas including cognition, mood, motivation and aging.   


A Tool in Fighting Stress and Anxiety 

Stress and anxiety are normal parts of life, but for many people, they’re immense challenges. Millions of U.S. adults struggle with anxiety disorders, depression, fatigue and memory lapses.

These frustrating conditions can often be improved by exercise. Scientists have found that regular participation in aerobic exercise can positively affect stress levels, mood, sleep quality and self-esteem. Even five minutes of aerobic exercise can help calm your emotions and promote clearer thinking.

Here’s how: Aerobic exercise stimulates the growth of new brain cells and development of blood vessels, particularly in the hippocampus, which is associated with memory, learning new information and regulating emotions. Research shows that regularly exercising with moderate intensity can increase the size of this area of the brain in as little as six months.  

On the flip side, depression has been shown to slow neuronal production in the brain, and a bout of prolonged depression can actually shrink the hippocampus.


Key to Your Physical Health

Of course, there are the more well-known benefits to regular exercise, but they bear repeating. Regular exercise can:

  • Improve heart and lung function
  • Prevent or reverse muscle loss and weakness
  • Improve coordination
  • Lower the risk for diabetes by improving insulin sensitivity
  • Boost immune system function
  • Promote weight loss
  • Improve metabolism
  • Improve liver function


One More Thing …

Recent research has shed new light that skeletal muscle is actually an endocrine organ. Whenever you exercise, the muscles that are used secrete proteins into the bloodstream that protect and enhance the energy-generating centers of your tissues and organs throughout the body. The result being improved memory and body function, slowing down of the aging process, and a reduced chance of contracting a debilitating disease.


What Next?

The most recent guidelines for adults recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity (e.g., brisk walking) each week, 75 minutes of a vigorous-intensity activity (such as jogging or swimming laps) or a combination of the two.

Here are some tips to help you get started:

Start small: Set small daily goals and aim for consistency rather than waiting to exercise only when you feel like it. It's better to walk every day for 20 minutes than to wait until the weekend for a fitness marathon. 

Stay active: Many people go to a gym or group exercise class to stay healthy, but there’s a lot you can do at home that constitutes exercising as well. Exercise is anything that gets your heart pumping enough to break a sweat. Brisk walking, yardwork and playing with the kids outside all count.

Try something new: Commit to maintaining a positive attitude about exercise and finding activities you like.

Crank the tunes: Whether it’s music or podcasts, many people find that it’s more fun to exercise while listening to something they enjoy (just be sure to remain aware of your surroundings).

Find a friend: It can be easier to stick to your exercise routine when you’re accountable to a friend, partner or colleague.

Play the long game: Be patient and gradually ease into your exercise program. Learn to appreciate steady improvement and reaching smaller, attainable goals.

Whether you’re just getting started or taking it to the next level, it’s time to take advantage of all the good that exercise does. Be sure to consult your primary care provider first, then take the next step in improving your physical and mental health.

More Resources

About the Author

Tim Buresh, PT, MPT, a physical therapist at Methodist Physicians Clinic, is committed to living the Methodist motto as he works with patients.

The Meaning of Care means that I am giving my all with every patient I treat,” he said. “I’m truly listening to their struggles and concerns, being compassionate, and providing high-quality care through my continuous commitment to higher learning.”

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