Exercise is not just a body composition or fat loss tool. It needs to be considered as one of the key tools in your toolbox for improving and maintaining your overall health. Dr. Mark Tarnopolasky famously said ‘If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical drug ever developed’
A better understanding of neurochemical connections is proving that there is a powerful relationship between our brains and movement. A big brain (like we have!) is necessary for facilitating complex movements. Executing such movements and getting your heart rate up bolsters your brain power. Exercise has been proven to help people learn more efficiently, better deal with stress, drastically reduce anxiety, improve mood to the point of lifting people out of depression and strengthens focus.
There are numerous studies indicating that exercise may improve academic performance. A study across the USA highlighted that higher fitness scores were associated with higher test scores. Another study indicated that performing high intensity exercise before a vocabulary test improved students performance by 20% over students that were sedentary. Although we cannot assume cause and effect, there are plenty of global examples where exercise is being incorporated in education systems to facilitate learning. The President of Taiwan and the Minister of Education in South Korea extended the school day by 1hr to include more time for sports and the average academic performance has drastically improved in both cases.
The key to this phenomenon is a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). The brain has to grow and modify its cellular infrastructure to learn something. Researches showed that sprinkling BDNF onto neurons in a petri dish causes the cells to automatically sprout new branches and produce the same cell structure required for learning.
BDNF – Improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth and protects them against cell death. You can increase BDNF in the blood by up to 32% with 20-40mins of aerobic exercise. So instead of a coffee in the morning try a morning run!
Think of your body as the world’s most intricate ‘if then’ system
E.g. If cold then shiver, If hot then sweat etc
Most of our bodies physiological processes cannot be induced by force of will, certain triggers must be present. Therefore if we understand which triggers need to be present for which reaction we can start getting our brains to do what we want.
The reason exercise is responsible for so many positive effects on the brain is because movement signals to the brain that something important is happening. Originally, having movements was for survival. We moved to escape predators, to forage for food and to hunt. Remembering the particular path to forage for food, the escape route from a predator or how to trap some prey was required and therefore learning was essential. When we are sedentary our brains are in safety mode and have a sense of security, nothing important is happening and it’s time to rest so learning is not essential.
Our brain has a reward centre, so for almost every activity we do there is a reward response. We strive for success because we expect fulfillment and we eat sugar because it tastes good. Without reward our brains don’t have much motivation to do anything. An example of this is anti-obesity drug called rimonabant. This drug forces people to stop eating by inhibiting the reward response from food. However, it unfortunately stops the reward response from everything else too. Approximately 20% of participants in the study developed depression and several committed suicide, demonstrating how powerful our brains reward systems are.
Dopamine is a key player in this reward system. Dopamine is all about motivation and attention. It is responsible for that feeling of satisfaction when you accomplish something. Therefore if your dopamine is not functioning properly you can struggle to get things done because you are not getting enough fulfillment from getting things done. Exercise boosts motivation by increasing dopamine storage and increasing creation of dopamine receptors in the reward centre. Therefore it will help you with that extra willpower and focus on getting those little things done that just don’t usually feel as rewarding.
Exercise also increases levels of norepinephrine and serotonin. People become depressed if these neurotransmitters along with dopamine are in deficit. Exercise was compared to the antidepressant Zoloft over a 16 week trial. The research showed that jogging just 3 times a week for 30mins was just as effective as taking Zoloft without the side effects. Also in the Netherlands, a study of over 19,000 twins showed that individuals who exercised were less depressed, less neurotic, less anxious and more socially outgoing.
Stress and the brain
Ancient Scenario – you are sat relaxing and then all of a sudden a predator approaches you, cortisol is released, your heart rate shoots up, digestion turns off and you start moving fast! You will exert a huge amount of effort to get away then quickly come to rest, cortisol levels will drop and stay low for the rest of the day. This is another example of the if-then sequencing. If you have exerted sufficient effort cortisol levels will decline to baseline.
Modern Scenario – we have a lot of the ‘If’ part of the sequence to increase cortisol levels with many stressors e.g. the work commute or interactions with work colleagues. But unfortunately the ‘then’ part of the sequence is not activated so we sit around with a bunch of cortisol in our system. This leads to high levels of chronic stress.
We’ve all heard of ‘stress makes you fat’, and this is true. Increased cortisol levels have been proven to increase levels of visceral fat, which is heavily linked to cardiovascular diseases and metabolic syndrome. However, the most important area is the brain. People with elevated cortisol levels degrade their brain tissue much more quickly. As cortisol rises electrical signals in the hippocampus deteriorate. The hippocampus is associated with learning, memories and stress control. However, by exercising in the morning you can dial down cortisol levels and keep them down for the rest of the day. Frequent exercise allows your body to get much better at reacting to stress.
Again – Do not look at exercise as purely a body composition or fat loss tool. It needs to be considered as one of the key tools in your toolbox for improving and maintaining your overall health. Often it is not until too late that people realise the importance of looking after their health. As the saying goes ‘you don’t realise how valuable it is until it’s gone.’ Be proactive and look after yourself!