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7 Mind-Blowing Benefits of Exercise

Maybe you exercise to tone your thighs, build your biceps, or flatten your belly.

Or maybe you work out to ward off the big killers like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. But how about sweating to improve your mind? “Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning," says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey. If you need a little extra incentive to lace up those sneakers, here are five ways that exercise can boost your brainpower.

It reverses the detrimental effects of stress.

Jumping on the treadmill or cross trainer for 30 minutes can blow off tension by increasing levels of "soothing" brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine.

It lifts depression.

Research suggests that burning off 350 calories three times a week through sustained, sweat-inducing activity can reduce symptoms of depression about as effectively as antidepressants.

It improves learning.

Exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help make new brain cells and establish new connections between brain cells to help us learn.

It builds self-esteem and improves body image.

You don't need to radically change your body shape to get a confidence surge from exercise. Studies suggest that simply seeing fitness improvements, like running a faster mile or lifting more weight than before, can improve your self-esteem and body image.

It leaves you feeling euphoric.

Yes, that "runner's high" really does exist if you're willing to shift into high-intensity mode. Ratey recommends sprint bursts through interval training. Run or bike as fast as you can for 30 to 40 seconds and then reduce your speed to a gentle pace for five minutes before sprinting again. Repeat four times for a total of five sprints. "You'll feel really sparkly for the rest of the day," he says.

It keeps the brain fit.

Even mild activity like a walk can help keep your brain fit and active, fending off memory loss and keeping skills like vocabulary retrieval strong.

It may keep Alzheimer's at bay.

The Alzheimer's Research Center touts exercise as one of the best weapons against the disease. Exercise appears to protect the hippocampus, which governs memory and spatial navigation, and is one of the first brain regions to succumb to Alzheimer's-related damage.

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