Thinking on Your Feet: Exercise and Mental Health Fitness
We spend a lot of time exercising without realising the full beneficial effect on our brains. Equally, there are those who spend a lot of time doing nothing but keeping the couch warm without realising they could be developing the creeping condition of numbskull.
Bottom line (excuse pun) – it’s not just your body that needs that exercise, your brain needs the action, the movement, the concentration, and the motivated circulation of a healthy vascular system to keep it fresh and functioning in top gear.
The brain benefits of physical exercise
Apart from mental exercises such as puzzles, chess, crosswords (or even a good argument which could get the snap back into your synapses) your brain needs the stimulation of physical exercise – at least three times a week but preferably every day. And here’s what the brain enjoys when you exercise:
- an increased blood flow to the brain and expansion of the brain’s network of blood vessels
- stimulation which may lead to the birth of new neurons
- greater integration of various areas of the brain necessary to create seamless coordination, rhythm and strategic thinking.
- improved memory through regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, boosting the size of the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning.
- a stimulation of chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells – and even the amount and development of new brain cells.
- a reduction in the risk of strokes and dementia
- better sleep and higher energy levels.
Across the board, exercise can be beneficial with regard to:
- quicker problem-solving abilities
- greater focus and concentration
- greater productivity.
- greater productivity.
So, in essence, exercise can expand your IQ! Studies have suggested that parts of the brain controlling thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) are larger in people who exercise versus those who don’t.
There is something referred to as “white matter” which is responsible for transmitting information around your brain. The more white matter you have, the better insulated your connections are – and therefore more reliable and efficient. And aerobic exercises have been shown to contribute to good white matter. A study published in 2013 found that older adults who engaged in aerobic exercise regularly over a good span of time, were seen to have better white matter integrity than those who lived a more sedentary lifestyle.
The mood mover
If you do engage in exercise – even if it’s just going for a good walk – you will know that it makes you feel better. Exercise has been proven to have positive effects on our emotions. A run, a walk, a hike, a session in the gym can all lift our moods and help us to de-stress. In fact, regular exercise makes you a happier person, helps you to control your temper, and even helps people who are suffering from depression. It helps you to sleep better and therefore reduces anxiety. Poor sleep is often a contributor to an anxious, muddled mind. Exercise gets the blood moving, tires you physically, lifts your disposition, improves your sense of wellbeing and self-esteem.
Exercise and brain food
If you are exercising and using up your energy, stands to reason you’re going to be hungry. Exercise certainly improves your appetite but it’s real benefit is that it helps you to eat better and reduces cravings. You will drink more water because you’ll be thirsty – and that’s also good for your brain!
With better a feeling about yourself and generally feeling more energised and healthy, you will look to different foods to keep you ready for action. Avoid energy drinks, rather turn to good carbs such as rice and pasta and fruits, along with heart-healthy fats and lean protein, which brings nutrients and oxygen to your muscles – and of course, your brain. The benefits exercise have on the inside are everything that benefits your brain as well.
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