Okay, those of you old enough to remember, may remember the anti-drug commercial from the 1980s “This is Your Brain on Drugs”; it was short and sweet and showed someone cracking two eggs over a frying pan with the commentator forcibly saying, “This is your brain on drugs; Any questions?” For those of you too young to remember I’m sure it’s on YouTube, our favorite time capsule vehicle for everything in pop culture, music, and politics, and in between.
The end game of the commercial was of course to frighten folks, particularly young folks; from getting their brains fried using drugs like crack cocaine and heroin. I’m not sure how successful it was, but if it prevented even one person from taking a negative and possibly fatal path than it did its job. The visual of that frying pan always made me wonder exactly how does the brain work and what kinds of things will improve it besides prescription medicine. What I found is that exercise has a profound and lasting positive effect on our brain.
Exercise helps depression. Depression slows the ability to process information. It makes it difficult for us to concentrate, reach decisions, and can cause memory loss. Exercise improves our production of serotonin and dopamine (the brain chemicals that keeps us in a happy mood). It also boosts our endorphins, which also assist in happy moods.
Exercise also boosts our brain-building hormones. This is one of the reasons why so many of you have seen me be such an advocate for exercise in our senior citizens and kids for almost a decade now. It improves BDNF, brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that stimulates brain cell growth. This is particularly important for age related brain decline. The more we can stimulate our brain as we get older the stronger we can keep it. Active exercise like walking, jogging, and weight resistance routines, along with doing crossword puzzles, reading books, and writing, in addition to regular check-ups with our doctor, all can play a crucial and significant role in slowing brain decline.
As for kids, exercise improves our brain’s “Executive Function.” Executive Function is a fancy term that just basically means our brain’s ability to have cognitive function: focusing on complex tasks, organizing, remembering things like phone numbers and dates, and abstract thinking (the ability to think of things in general terms like a philosopher). All of this also improves memory as well. So for kids learning and going to school, the more improved their Executive Function is, the better they will do.
One of my favorite things that exercise does is improving insulin sensitivity. Insulin sensitivity is our body’s ability to process insulin and glucose in our cells. When we eat, our body turns most of the food into glucose (blood sugar) to fuel our cells. If this is not done properly, it can result in Type 2 diabetes. In addition to diabetes, if blood sugar is not handled properly it can hurt our memory and thinking. And diabetes itself can lead to a host of other problems, including kidney and nerve damage.
Now, as impressive as this list of brain benefits are, I couldn’t conclude a list like this without also including improvement of stress level. As many of you have seen in some of my other articles, stress increases our cortisol level. Increased cortisol can lead to increased body fat, and a decreased level of our ability to think straight and have good memory. Exercise lowers cortisol and stress, and as a result helps to keep body fat down and improve our thought process. Attached to this article you’ll see Yoga, one of my favorite exercise regimens for the mind and body.
If our heart is the engine to our body then our mind is certainly the conductor. Keeping the function of our brain strong and vital throughout our entire life from birth to 105 (if we live to that age) has always been a cornerstone to my philosophy and wish for anyone who I have coached directly or indirectly through my articles and volunteering efforts. Our quality of life is heavily centered on the general health of our minds and bodies.
Exercise does not have to be hours a day 7 days a week. Basically a few days a week (3 to 4) of moderate exercise of ½ hour to an hour will suffice. What drives us to get up and walk or run or take an aerobics class or Zumba class is our mind. Our bodies cannot do a thing if our mind has already given up.
Buddha says “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” If nothing else moves you to improve your quality of life, keeping your mind sound and strong should do it. That’s one of the things that is universal despite your personal likes or dislikes of exercise. We all want to keep our mind and body strong throughout our entire life.
Michael Shaw is a certified fitness trainer, sports performance nutrition specialist, owner of Shaw LLC, a member of the Maryland Advisory Council on Physical Fitness, and a fitness and fashion model manager. He can be reached at www.michaelroyshaw.com.