The Benefits of Physical Exercise on the Body and Mind
Summer is here. Days are longer. The weather is warmer. The outdoors is calling for everyone to head out and enjoy nature. Summer is also a great time to do more physical exercise. It is not just a matter of fun. The human body needs exercise to thrive.
The word exercise derives from the Latin root meaning “to maintain, to keep, to ward off.” To exercise means to practice, put into action, train, perform, use, or improve. Until recently, exercise was a natural part of living. Biologically, physical exertion was part of survival. Hunting, gathering, raising livestock and growing food all required a lot of physical exertion. Historically, it was built into daily life, as regular hours of physical work or soldiering for men and housework, child rearing and gardening for women. Walking was originally a form of transportation. However, with the advent of the industrial revolution, machines and the information age, exercise has become less and less a part of daily life for most people. These days, we have to consciously include it in our daily routine.
Exercise is Good for You!
No surprise there. Most everyone knows that exercise is good for the body. But did you know just how good? Regular exercise:
- Lowers Blood Pressure and Cholesterol. Regular exercise lowers blood pressure and cholesterol. Regular physical activity boosts high-density lipoprotein (HDL), or “good,” cholesterol while decreasing triglycerides. This one-two punch keeps your blood flowing smoothly by lowering the buildup of plaques in your arteries.
- Increases Oxygen to the Brain. Exercise increases breathing and heart rate. This allows more blood to flow to the brain. Studies show that in response to regular exercise, cerebral blood vessels grow.
- Increases Energy and Better Digestion. Exercise enhances energy production and waste elimination.
- Reduces Incidence of Certain Diseases. Regular physical activity can help prevent type two diabetes, osteoporosis and certain types of cancer.
- Improves Mood. Physical activity stimulates various brain chemicals such as endorphins that make people feel happier and more relaxed than before exercising.
- Controls Weight. Exercise helps manage weight. This is a no-brainer. When engaged in physical activity, the body burns more calories. The more intense the activity, the more calories are burned — and the easier it is to keep weight under control.
- Improves Cognitive Health. Physical exercise improves brain function and actually protects against cognitive decline. That is to say, exercise helps the thinking organ. The human brain is able to continually adapt and rewire itself. Even in old age, it can grow new neurons. While severe mental decline is usually caused by disease, most age-related losses in memory or motor skills simply result from inactivity and a lack of mental and physical stimulation.
- Reduces Stress and Aging. Thirty minutes of regular exercise can reduce stress and ease tension by boosting levels of “soothing” brain chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. Even more fascinating, according to a study by the University of California at San Francisco, it also works on a cellular level to reverse the toll of stress on the aging process. The study found that women who exercised vigorously for an average of 45 minutes over a three-day period had cells that showed fewer signs of aging compared to women who were stressed and not active.
- Reduces Depression. Burning 350 calories 3x per week doing sustained, sweat-inducing exercise can reduce symptoms of depression as effectively as antidepressant medication. Exercise has been found to stimulate the growth of neurons in certain brain regions damaged during depression. Exercise also seems to boost the production of brain molecules that improve connections between nerve cells, thereby acting as a natural antidepressant.
Exercise is Good for the Body and the Brain!
The less we exercise our body and brain, the more quickly the body and brain decay. Keeping mentally stimulated is usually no problem for people with jobs or careers. A typical work day requires people to read, store new information, engage in new skills and solve problems. Most people complain of being mentally overloaded. Scientist and physician Aaron Parkinson referred to this as flexing the ‘millionaire’ muscle. He understood that each healthy, well-functioning neuron in the brain is directly linked to tens of thousands of other neurons, creating a total of more than a hundred trillion connections – each capable of performing 200 calculations per second! Mental stimulation keeps the brain agile.
However, keeping physically stimulated is equally important for brain power. Brain chemistry indicates that there is an essential unity of mind and body. Neurons not only connect with other neurons, they also connect with skeletal muscles, at a specialized structure called the neuromuscular junction. There, the brain uses acetylcholine – its primary chemical neurotransmitter for memory and attention – to communicate with muscles. The role of these neurotransmitters in regulating movement underscores the intimate relation between body and mind, muscle and memory. Physical exercise is a great way to compliment and support the critical thinking, creative and problem solving tasks done by the brain.
If physical activity is good for the brain, complicated physical activities, like playing tennis or taking a dance class, is even better. Complicated activities provide the biggest brain boost, challenging the brain to think about coordination during exercise. Like muscles, brain cells must be stressed to grow. Complicated activities improve the capacity to learn by stressing brain cells with tasks that require attention and concentration. One study found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after doing 10 minutes of a complicated fitness routine compared to 10 minutes of regular fitness activity. Those who hadn’t exercised at all scored the worst.
Which Exercise Is Best?
Most any kind of exercise or physical exertion is beneficial. Dedicated workouts are great, but physical activity accumulated throughout the day also helps too. For example, take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator in a parking garage or mall. Ride a bike to the store instead of driving. Take a walk during a lunch break. These are all good ways to increase daily exertion.
Walking is especially good for the brain, because it increases the blood circulation, oxygen and glucose that reach the brain. Walking is not strenuous, so leg muscles don’t take up as much extra oxygen and glucose as they do during other forms of exercise. During a walk, the body effectively oxygenates the brain. That explains why people think better after a walk. Walking literally “clears the head”.
The next time you have a big project at work or are stumped trying to solve a business problem, get out from behind the desk and exercise. Your mind is likely to be clearer and more focus afterward. In the meantime, make a commitment this week to incorporate regular exercise into your daily routine. Your body, brain and career are all likely to benefit from it.
Next week, we’ll look at all the different exercise options available to make it more fun than ever to stay active.
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
“Exercise is the chief source of improvement in our faculties.” Hugh Blair
© 2011, Written by Keren Peters-Atkinson, CMO, Madison Commercial Real Estate Services. All rights reserved.