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Oct 26, 2017

Your Brain Loves Exercise!

Written by Dr. Caroline Leaf

We all know the saying “an apple a day keeps the doctor away,” but what it should really say is that “an apple and a squat a day keeps the depression, doctors, and weight away!” While I am not suggesting one squat a day will work miracles, I am suggesting that at least an hour of exercise a day will work wonders on your brain, health and midsection.

Exercise potentially improves all areas of cognitive function, including thinking, learning, and memory, especially with age. In children, exercise is incredibly important for memory development.

Yet our overall ability to think and understand through intellectualizing and shifting through our thoughts is improved with exercise, regardless of our age. Physical activity increases blood flow to the anterior cingulate cortex (deep inside the middle of the brain), which is activated when we shift between thoughts in a flexible manner. Not only are we better able to form memories when we move but we also improve communication between these memories, facilitating deep understanding. Adding to these benefits, certain hormones, which are increased during exercise, help improve memory and thinking. These hormones are growth factors called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), vascular endothelial growth factor (VEGF), and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1).

In fact, research shows that people who exercise often improve their memory performance and show greater increase in brain blood flow to the hippocampus, the key brain region that deals with converting short- to long-term memory and is particularly affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

A growing body of research indicates that it is aerobic exercise such as power walking and cardio, not just physical activity in general, which specifically leads to improved and flexible cognition. Unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as the processed and refined diet with little or no exercise, will actually speed up the process of senescence (cell death), and, in turn, the release of damaging substances from dying cells. These substances unfortunately increase the toxic load in the body and brain and are responsible for early aging. Exercise, on the other hand, can help prevent or delay cell death. Exercise is medicine!

Physical activity essentially changes our DNA for the better. The epigenetic pattern of genes that affect fat storage in the body actually changes with exercise—the more we move, the better our bodies get at using and storing fat. Researchers have found that when we exercise, epigenetic changes occur in 7,000 of the 20,000 to 25,000 genes, with positive changes in genes linked to type 2 diabetes and obesity!Other studies have shown that when we exercise, our body almost immediately experiences genetic activation that increases the production of fat-busting proteins.

Exercise can be fun! Below are some tips to help make exercising easier and more exciting:

1. Workout with friends. Not only does it make working out more fun, but it also gives you an accountability partner.
2. Try different workout classes. There are so many different ways of working out, form yoga to running to pilates to swimming. Find out what works well for your body type, and maintain a disciplined exercise schedule.
3. Have a positive attitude. The mind dominates over everything. So when you exercise, put your mind behind it.
4. Reward yourself. Get a nice massage after an intense workout or splurge on that fancy new pair of sports shoes.
5. Make chores a workout! Did you know you shopping burns calories? Next time you find yourself at a Costco, take a few extra laps and get those steps in!
6.Find some great music. Music can help motivate you to run that extra mile and help distract you while you workout.
7. Sign up for local events. Why not sign up for that local charity race? Or the annual Turkey Trot? Most of these events are either free or come at a small price.

Although exercise fads come and go, the main thing to remember is to stay off your bottom as much as possible and make exercise an important part of your daily routine. Remember, your brain and your body loves exercise!

For more information on exercise, food and the brain see my book Think and Eat Yourself Smart.

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