In case you didn't already believe it, exercise has some excellent benefits for us as it strengthens the mind and improves your mood...
A recent article reported in Newsweek reaffirms that when sedentary people become active, they perform better on tests of executive function - the ability to focus on important things and tune out distractions. 'Exercise can improve anyone's mood and mental performance,' says Carl Cotman, director of the Institute for Brain Ageing and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine (USA). 'It's free, it's fun and it doesn't take a whole lot of time.'
Researchers have found that active people are generally happier and are less prone to depression and suicide. Researcher James Blumenthal placed depressed patients on a supervised exercise regiment where 60 per cent of them got better within four months – the same proportion that recover on antidepressants. And though 30 per cent of the medicated became depressed again within 10 months, only 9 per cent of the exercisers relapsed. The benefits or exercise here were quite obvious to researchers.
The research on mental performance tells a similar story. Researchers have long noticed that active seniors suffer less cognitive decline than sedentary ones, and recent studies suggest that aerobic exercise may make us sharper at any age, another great benefit of exercise. ‘When sedentary people become active, they perform better on tests of executive function-the ability to focus on important things and tune out distractions,’ says Art Kramer, a University of Illinois neuroscientist who uses magnetic resonance imaging to see how exercise affects the brain. ‘They also get better at switching from one task to another, and their memories improve.’
In another recent study, psychologist Charles Emery tested volunteers’ ability to fire off words that start with a particular letter. He then placed them on a supervised exercise program, for 10 weeks. After the completion of the program, participants were able to recite more words. ‘A year later, only the ones who had stuck with the regimen retained their ‘enhanced cognitive function,’ says Emery.
Exercises that challenge the brain as well as the body may provide further benefits. In a study published in the journal Nature this year, German researchers reported that people who practiced juggling for three months actually enlarged a region of the cerebral cortex that handles the processing of motion.
So, how does exercise work these wonders? IHRSA reports that ‘besides improving circulation, it causes an array of chemical changes within the brain. It boosts the activity of mood-enhancing neurotransmitters such as dopamine and serotonin. It increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a chemical that helps neurons multiply and form new connections. And it triggers the release of endorphins-morphine like chemicals that blunt pain and foster relaxation.’
Studies show that even 10 minutes of vigorous exercise (producing a pulse rate of 100 to 120 beats per minute, depending on your age) can raise endorphin levels for an hour. ‘You feel tired but you feel good,’ says John Morley, professor of internal medicine and geriatrics at St. Louis University. ‘It’s the endorphin high.’