Exercise on the Brain

(Originally posted on bcotoronto.com on Jan 5th, 2012)

New Years has come and gone and we are into the season of New Years resolutions. One of the most common resolutions is to exercise more (it’s even mine this year). I would like to take this week to encourage you to keep that goal (We’ll do it together).

The physical benefits of exercise are extremely well known with improved cardiovascular health, improved diet control, improved metabolism. The list goes on and on. But what most people are unaware of is that exercise is good for your brain.

We all know that our brains have more functions than we can count but unless you have studied neurology most people think that everything is separate in there. In truth, almost everything in the brain is connected. It’s like when you come across a certain sight, or smell, or sound and you are thrown back into very vivid memories. That is the smell (“Olfactory”) centres of the brain communicating with the memory areas. Not all “cross-talk” is this obvious but this is a prime example. So when we do one thing that will affect multiple other systems.

When we exercise, either cardio or weight lifting, we are firing neurons in your brain in many different systems. Our brains are telling our muscles to move, our muscles are telling our brains how long they are and what directions they are moving, the skin is feeling the air, the sweat, and our clothing, and many many other signals are traveling back and forth. All of this is being, almost instantaneously, processed and interpreted by the brain. This in turn allows the brain to tell the body how to react: increase heart and breathing rate, increase metabolism, and all those well known physical reactions to exercise.

All this cross-talk has effects on the brain itself and functions we don’t necessarily associate with regular physiology. In general, this cross-talk increases the amount of neurological activity overall. This will increase the processing power of all parts of the brain. This is why people say they can think clearer when exercising. They are not clearing their mind but are in fact doing the opposite. They are filling it with information and boosting the ability to use all parts of the brain.

This increase in function has several well established effects such as increasing control of emotions, improving mood (which is primarily a hormonal effect but increased neurological activity is a component), increasing short-term and long-term memory, and improving cognitive functioning.

After exercise these effects will last for a little while and then return to normal. But these don’t have to be short term effects. Just as with the physical effects of exercise, the more you do it the longer and greater the effects will last and be. So let’s get back on that horse (or bike, or treadmill) together and improve our brains to be better for the new year.

Thanks for reading and Happy New Year,
Dr. Ben


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