Moving your body improves your gray matter, making you smarter, happier, and more resilient. In fact, some progressive scientists believe building muscles and conditioning your heart and circulatory system are side effects: Exercise is really about your brain.
“The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best,” says John Ratey, MD, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. “The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.” Here’s how:
- Heightens alertness and perception. The brain is all about communication. It’s composed of 100 billion neurons that confer with each other via neurotransmitters, governing every thought and action. And exercise boosts these neurotransmitters, including norepinephrine, which sparks attention, perception, motivation, and arousal; serotonin, which directs signals that influence mood, impulsivity, anger, and aggression; and dopamine, which governs attention and learning, plus our sense of contentment and reward.
- Reinforces movement and coordination. As we move, our brains learn how to move better the next time. Exercise stimulates the cerebellum, which coordinates all the body’s motor functions, like standing upright, dunking a basketball, shooting a hockey puck, and performing a plié.
- Enhances attention and concentration. Our brains become more active when we are active; this causes neurons to fire in unison, creating brain waves. Using electroencephalogram (EEG) monitoring to track electrical pulses, researchers discovered that exercise intensifies brain-wave amplitude and frequency, and more beta waves are associated with a more alert state.
- Aids learning and memory. Making new neurons — a process called neurogenesis — is crucial for long-term memory. In a 2016 report published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers conducted MRI scans of cross-country runners and identified “significantly greater connectivity” between parts of their brains associated with attention, decision-making, multitasking, processing sensory input, and memory, compared with a control group of nonrunners.
- Supports mental health. “Going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters [serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine],” says Ratey. In the process, exercise helps our brains balance hormones. He believes that, along with alleviating depression, this harmonizing of our hormones also inoculates us against toxic stress and eases anxiety. “Keeping your brain in balance can change your life,” he says.
- Protects cognitive health. Physical activity induces the brain to create enzymes that chew up the amyloid beta-protein plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease, while also reducing inflammation. Exercise — along with lifestyle changes such as solid nutrition and quality sleep — may actually help keep that plaque at bay and slow cognitive decline.
- Keeps the brain young. All the processes that physical activity triggers in the brain add up to one sum: Moving our bodies keeps our brains young.
“Everything we’ve learned continues to confirm that exercise helps prevent cognitive decline as we age,” Ratey says. “All the antiaging protocols include exercise in a big way — it’s often the No. 1 lifestyle change to help people prevent aging and cognitive decline.”