Most athletes focus almost exclusively on improving the muscles and physiological capabilities that will make them higher achievers in their particular sports. Runners, for example, build leg muscles and learn to regulate their breathing in relation to their pace. Whether you are a runner, swimmer, or triathlete, you’re training is also developing and strengthening a part of your body many athletes don’t consider actively improving: your brain.
That’s right. While you’re sweating, lifting, lunging, and sprinting, your brain is getting “stronger” as well. Even better news? As you age and your PRs are mostly fond memories of years gone by, the brain-benefits of exercise continue! Need more? Here are five amazing brain/exercise connections:
- Exercise helps the brain learn and retain – In various human and animal studies, results show that exercise not only helps the brain retain information (i.e., support/improve memory), but also helps the brain acquire new information. While some variances in research findings exists, much of this discrepancy is attributed to the type and duration of exercise prescribed to the study participants.
- Consistent exercise helps avoid dementia – There is still a great deal we do not know about dementia. However, scientists and doctors are confident in a few preventative measures. Chief among them is healthy living: eat right, don’t smoke, and exercise. Exercise has been shown to slow the effects and reduce the risk of Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s, and Parkinson’s diseases. Even once these terrible diseases strike, exercise has been shown to slow the debilitating functional decline they bring about.
- Exercise can help ease and prevent depression – Exercise has been shown effective in treating depression and, interestingly, seems to work in a dose-dependent manner much like anti-depressants. The more exercise, the greater the impact. While more research is needed, early studies also point to exercise as a mechanism to avoid the onset or development of depression.
- Exercise mixed through your day helps concentration – Breaking up tasks such as working on a project or preparing a presentation with some aerobic-style exercise helps improve executive functions like tuning out distractions. Don’t worry, you don’t have to run a marathon over the course of your work day. Just 15-20 minutes of moderate engagement every few hours seems to make a measurable difference.
- Reduce stress, improve life – While many people self-report a stress reduction after exercise, some scans seem to show an actual, physical shrinking in the amygdala—a part of the brain strongly implicated in processing stress, anxiety, and fear. As nice as stress-free living can be in general, it turns out less stress leads to living longer! That’s right, increased stress is strongly linked to increased occurrence of heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and memory loss.
We’ve discovered some amazing brain benefits to exercising. Some of the risks and diagnoses listed are quite serious. As always, if you suffer from any of the mentioned ailments, consult your physician before altering any current medicinal or therapeutic plan. If that plan doesn’t include exercise, however, this may be a great discussion to have with your doctor, as well.
So, next time your quads are too sore to get up at 4:30am or you aren’t seeing the gains you’d like in the gym, just remember that you’re training regimen is building more than muscle and improving more than your finish times. You’re developing a better brain, a better you, and a better life.
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