We all know that exercising is important in maintaining the overall health of our bodies. By engaging in a regular exercise routine we can effectively manage our weight, boost our immune system, increase our lung capacity, and protect our heart and cardiovascular system from disease. In fact, exercising has been proven to be one of the most powerful tools in disease prevention, helping to protect the body from everything from the common cold to cancer. But what effect does regular exercise have on the brain?  For years we have understood that exercise releases endorphins, the mood elevating hormones that are responsible for the so-called “runners high” that can follow a rigorous workout. But recent studies have shown that physical exercise does much more for the brain than we previously believed.

Exercise and Mental Well-Being

Depression and anxiety are clinically recognized mood disorders that affect one out of every ten Americans. People suffering from chronic depression or anxiety know, to their cost, just how debilitating these mood disorders can be. Great strides have been made in the understanding and treatment of these disorders. Unfortunately, most conventional treatments rely heavily on antidepressant medications that carry a wide range of dangerous side-effects. But recent research into the mind body connection indicates that prolonged physical activity can have a powerful influence on a person’s mental state.This is not a matter of a brief release of endorphins, but an overall long lasting reduction in depression and anxiety.

A recent study looked at the fitness levels of 11,000 men and 3000 women. Results showed a direct correlation between an increase in fitness and a marked decrease in symptoms of depression and anxiety. The research study showed that physically active individuals had up to a 33% reduction in depressive symptoms, regardless of gender or race. The researchers concluded that regular exercise could be as valuable in treating depression and anxiety as antidepressants and conventional therapy.

Exercise and Cognitive Decline

Alzheimer’s disease and dementia have become a growing concern, particularly in the western world. As our life expectancy increases, our brains and bodies become prone to a host of degenerative disorders. The cognitive decline associated with these disorders appears to be connected to a decrease in both brain mass and healthy brain cells. While the causal connection remains unclear, recent surveys of older adults have shown that those individuals who remained physically active had fewer instances of non-trauma related dementia.

The studies suggest that exercising helps to preserve the overall health of the brain, ensuring the delivery of the much needed hormones that maintain the health and vitality of existing brain cells. When the health and integrity of the brain’s cell structure is maintained, neurotransmitters function more effectively. Consequently, memory, decision making, and the ability to solve complex problems remain unimpaired.

Exercise and the Structure of the Brain

As the body ages, cells die and are replaced by new cells. This happens at a different rate for every part of the body. It has long been believed that the brain was unique, in that as brain cells die they could not be replaced. However, recent research into the structure of the brain has shown that this is not the case. What is particularly interesting is that the rate of new brain cell growth seems to be directly linked to a history of exercise and physical activity.

Regular exercise appears to promote the growth of new brain cells, especially in those individuals who have a long personal history of aerobic and resistance training. This research would seem to indicate that individuals who have lived a predominantly sedentary life are at a significantly higher risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, and that regular exercise is a key component to keeping the brain healthy and functioning at optimal levels.

While exercising has always been the key to weight loss and general good health, it now appears that it also plays a vital role in maintaining the overall health of the brain. It is recommended that individuals engage in regular exercise, at minimum a thirty minute walk five times a week, as a way of combating mood disorders and bolstering the brain’s cognitive abilities.