Exercise good for brain as well as body

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

This is a Sunday column series in SouthView that focuses on exercising, good nutrition and generally becoming healthier and more fit. Today's column is by Barbara Hoots, who designs indoor cycling studios and is associated with Tony's Gym. If you have a question for any of our fitness columnists, you can submit it to southview@albanyherald.com.

Maybe you exercise to develop well-defined biceps or chiseled abs. Perhaps you work out to ward off high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease. But what about getting in shape to improve your mind? "Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey. "Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain."

If you've been skipping out on your workout and need a little extra incentive to hit the gym, here are six ways that exercise can enhance your brainpower:

1. It reverses the effects of stress and lifts depression. Becoming intimate with a treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes a day boosts levels of "calming" brain chemicals like serotonin and dopamine and instantly relieves tension. What's fascinating, though, is that exercise can actually work to reverse stress's toll on our aging process. According to a study from the University of California, researchers found that high-stressed women who exercised vigorously for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and did not exercise.

Likewise, there is evidence that vigorous exercise affects mood. Burning calories through sustained, sweat-inducing activity three times a week can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants. Exercise improves connections between nerve cells and acts as a natural antidepressant. The world is always a better place after you've exercised.

2. It improves learning. Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors that help us learn. Activities like playing tennis or taking a dance class provide enormous brain boosts. "You're challenging your brain even more when you have to think about coordination," explains Ratey. Complicated physical activities also improve our capacity to learn by enhancing our attention and concentration. Researchers found that high school students scored better on tests after doing 10 minutes of a fitness routine compared to 10 minutes of regular activity. Those who hadn't exercised at all scored the worst.

3. It improves self-esteem. You don't need to drastically change your body shape to get a confidence surge from exercise. Studies suggest that little fitness improvements, like completing your first Spinning(R) class or lifting more weight than before, can significantly improve self-esteem. A 2002 study by The National Academy of Health showed that teens who did not exercise were five times more likely to engage in overuse of alcohol, drugs and crime than those who were committed to regular exercise.

4. It improves body image. A recent University of Florida study finds the simple act of exercise can convince you that you look better. "People who don't achieve workout milestones such as losing fat, gaining strength or boosting cardiovascular fitness feel just as good about their bodies as their more athletic counterparts," said Heather Hausenblas, a UF exercise psychologist. With such a large portion of our population unhappy about their physiques, it's encouraging to know that even short, frequent bouts of lower intensity exercise can improve body image.

5. It promotes sound sleep. Do you struggle to fall asleep and stay asleep? Forget a trip to the medicine cabinet. Research indicates that 30 minutes of moderately intense exercise each morning may help set a person's circadian rhythms (body clock) to be awake during the day and asleep at night. Additionally, late afternoon or early evening aerobic exercise (when you keep your heart rate up and your muscles pumping for at least 20 minutes) improves the quality of your sleep. Exercise raises your body temperature above normal a few hours before bed, allowing it to start falling just as you're getting ready to go to sleep. This decrease in body temperature appears to be a trigger that helps ease you into a deep slumber. Although strength-training, yoga, golf and other methods of exercise are beneficial, none match the sleep-enhancing benefits of vigorous cardiovascular exercise.

6. It leaves you feeling euphoric. It's true. That "runner's high" really does exist if you're willing to shift into high-intensity mode. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training. Run, bike, or swim as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. "You'll feel really sparkly for the rest of the day."

Barbara Hoots is a veteran Spinning(R) instructor at Tony's Gym and a contributing columnist for Spinning News and Indoor Cycle Instructor Pro. She has designed award-winning studios for the U.S. Army, Half Moon Resort in Jamaica and numerous health clubs and universities. Visit her website at www.spinroomdesign.com.