Exercise on the Brain

We tend to focus on the body’s need for exercise. Research makes clear that inactivity is the enemy of the body and that the way to combat that is to be active. As someone who works with people with the mind-body connection in mind, I’m always interested in learning about new findings about what affects the body (and by extension the mind). When I do learn about new discoveries, I like to pass them along. So it was with great interest that I read a recent article in the New York Times: “Jogging Your Brain.” In the article, the author, Gretchen Reynolds, writes about the positive effect that exercise has on cognitive functioning. “[S]cientists in just the past few months have discovered that exercise appears to build a brain that resists physical shrinkage and enhance cognitive flexibility.” I particularly like that word “flexibility” – often a goal in psychotherapy treatment is to help a person achieve a greater range of flexibility in terms of thoughts and behaviors. I believe flexibility, in a person’s choices, range of motion (as in yoga) or brain cells is a sign of good health. The article says that “Exercise . . . does more to bolster thinking than thinking does.”

The article talks about results of a study done at the University of Illinois with mice. The conclusion basically was that “Animals that exercised…had healthier brains and performed significantly better on cognitive tests than other mice.” It appears that exercise not only slows the degeneration of the brain, but helps to build new neurons as well. [Another article in the New York Times talks about new theories on depression that have to do with the degeneration of neurons.]

The article points out that understanding exactly how exercise affects the brain remains mysterious. Questions about the effect of a particular exercise over another are currently unresolved. Most of the research data comes from exercises involving running or other aerobic activities. However, Reynolds concludes “Whatever the activity, though, an emerging message from the most recent science is that exercise needn’t be exhausting to be effective for the brain.” When I work with people, especially those suffering from depression, we cover a wide range of issues. We often focus on what people can do to promote better mental health. Going for a run – or even a walk – seems to go a long way to strengthen the brain and invigorate the mind.

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