It is official – we are no longer hunters and gatherers. We spend most of our day sitting in front of a screen. Because of this 65% of the United States adults are overweight or obese. It is well known by now that we are killing our bodies due to inactivity – creating heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and increased cancer risks. But what many don’t realize is that lack of exercise significantly affects our mood, intelligence, and motivation. Exercise has recently been proven to be more successful and long lasting than many drugs in treating depression, anxiety and the non-brain related diseases listed above.
Learning and Memory – According to John Ratey, MD in Spark, exercise is “miracle grow for the brain.” Learning requires Long Term Potentiation (LTP) or a strong affinity between neurons. When the brain is called to take in new information and a chemical called glutamate is present in the synapses, the link is more likely to bond. Exercise increases levels of glutamate and a protein called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) – both important for survival of and generation of new synaptic connections to learn new information and tasks.
Depression – In 2000 researches from Duke University made the New York Times with a study showing that exercise is better than Zoloft at treating depression. In most psychiatric issues, stress causes the brain to get locked into a pattern of pessimism, fear, and retreat. Stress is normal for people to feel and to recover from, if the body is allowed to recover. The problem with psychological stress is that because the brain is so good at creating synapses, the negative pattern is learned and repeated and we never get a chance to recover. When we exercise, new patterns develop and new hormones are introduced (serotonin and norepinephrine). When we are done exercising, the body recovers.
Our brain does not distinguish between good and bad stress on the system, just the increased demand on our system. How the brain reacts is purely based on how things are processed in the cortex. Are there enough STRONG and ACTIVE connections and cortisol levels in our brain at the time of the stressor? If there are too much cortisol levels for prolonged periods (no recovery) it becomes difficult to learn something new, but in short bursts (during exercise for example), our bodies can long term potentiate easier. This is why it might be a good idea to have a good session of cardio exercise prior to cramming for a test.
The key point made above is that if we stress ourselves in short doses, physically, we can treat our depressive moods. This is why you feel so euphoric after a High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) session. What does this all mean? We need to exercise OFTEN and HARD to help offset the chance of chronic stress that results from overconsumption of social media, high work demands, learned pessimism, or general lack of movement. So what are you waiting for? Get out there and move. Your brain and body depend on it.