By Elizabeth M. Ward, MS, RD
We’re in the throes of Summer Games competition, and watching all that physical activity on TV may spur you to get off the couch and work out more in hopes of shedding some pounds.
Then, just as you’re lacing up your sneakers, a study comes along suggesting exercise is no magic bullet for weight loss. But don’t let the news dampen your enthusiasm: Exercise benefits your brain as well as your body.
For me, exercise is a major stress-buster. A lower stress level helps me to better control my diet, and by that, I mean eat fewer sweets that wreak havoc on my waistline.
No matter how much I sometimes detest the thought of working out, I always feel better immediately afterwards and throughout the day. Working out with my friends is good for my brain, too.
I know from personal and professional experience that exercise is only one part of the weight control equation, so I’ve started to focus on how physical activity influences my mind. I’ve wondered what learning new routines in step class, and repetitive activities, such as running, do for my health beyond burning calories, toning muscles, and other benefits. Here’s what I found out about the possible effects of exercise on the brain.
• It helps to head off dementia. Recent research suggests that stimulating the brain with physical activity could help it to grow and develop, even later in life, and in people who are already mildly cognitively impaired.
Working out boosts a concentration of growth factors, which promote the production of new brain cells and increases the connections between brain cells that foster learning. Challenging your brain to tell your body what to do, like I do in my step aerobics class and when I play tennis, may be the best way to boost brain function, but less strenuous activity, including walking, is beneficial, too.
• It reduces symptoms of depression. Exercise may be a natural antidote for mild depression in some people. Nobody knows the exact mechanism for how exercise improves mood. It may be that exercise such as yoga increases the level of a compound called GABA in the brain, which may make for a better mood and less anxiety. Speak with your licensed health care professional about the effects of exercise on depression and what’s right for you.
• It increases your energy level. Physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, which may provide an energy boost, making you more productive at home and at the office. Consider exercise an investment in your productivity rather than a drag on your time.
• It may improve test scores. A recent study found that the fittest 18-year-olds performed better on several different types of cognitive tests compared to less fit children of the same age. While this research did not prove a direct relationship between exercise and better cognition, it underscores the importance of regular physical activity in children. (The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends at least 60 minutes a day for kids.)
It’s never too late, or too early, to start reaping the rewards of regular physical activity. In addition to a balanced diet and other healthy lifestyle habits, there’s every reason to start working out, or to exercise more often if necessary, for brain benefits.