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What Exercise Really Does For Our Brain

Exercise is the human condition. For much of our species’ history, we have been mobile hunter-gatherers fighting off conflicting tribes, wild animals, and foraging for food. Movement is how we evolved to live and thrive.

Modern science validates this ancestral approach to movement. Not only will we be happier and healthier with movement, but studies show we can increase our mental performance drastically. Certain movement can enhance our creativity, focus, concentration, and even longevity.

As you will soon find out, movement and exercise is not only a way to keep our bodies in shape and looking great, but also an opportunity to get the most from our brain.

The Argument for Movement

Trends across editorial news sites consider “sitting the new smoking,” but beyond the click-bait sound bytes even scientific literature sounds similar. A study entitled “Too Little Exercise and Too Much Sitting…” suggests that sitting can increase risks of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer.

exerciseAll the chronic illnesses westerners struggle with, which certainly impact our cognitive performance and brain health, are directly correlated with movement. Exercise of all kinds (including walking) is associated with cognitive improvements. A Cochrane review of all the exercise literature in 2013 found that it can reduce symptoms of depression. Another study found aerobic exercise can increase executive function and memory formation.

Something as simple as walking even has major advantages. A Stanford study at the Graduate School of Education found that a quick 5 minute walk could increase creativity by up to 50%.

There is a reason Steve Jobs loved going on walks and it is as much about health as it is about what walking can do for our brain.

Certain exercises can act as cognitive enhancers in different ways. Below we will outline different movement types and how they impact our brain and body, but if minimal exercise is your style then just try this.

For every 1 hour period, try to sit no more than 50 minutes and then go for a 10 minute walk. 

Imagine if you work a standard 8 hour day. That would be 1 hour and 20 minutes of walking per day. That might not be something you feel comfortable doing all at once, but frequent short breaks make a big difference.

Running and Weight Lifting: Which Exercise is Better?

The world of exercise is filled with variations and sub-variations. Some profess to be adherents of long distance running while others will only lift weights. The truth is, many of these varying exercise modalities have unique effects on the brain.

Long distance running (swimming, biking etc) is often linked with increased flow states. Through a mechanism called transient hypofrontality (shutting down certain parts of the brain), long duration athletes experience self-described increases in flow states. On the flip side, the study found no cognitive performance increase as a result. runners

The long distance runners do benefit from endorphins, which can increase mood and feelings of happiness. Although endorphins are an opioid, this isn’t the only chemical that accounts for improved moods.

For weight lifting, the benefits can be different. Heavy weight lifting takes a significant tole on the central nervous system, which increases the secretion of chemicals like growth hormone and testosterone. Optimizing chemicals (for both males and females) can improve mood, cognitive performance, and longevity.

Deciding whether to do long-duration activity or weight lifting is not easy to do. Injuries abound for both runners and weight lifters so determine which type of exercise feels best for you and stick to that.

HIIT and Longevity

For physical activity enthusiasts looking to find even more cognitive enhancement goodness, a March 2017 study in Cell found that HIIT activity can increase mitochondrial capacity more than any other type of exercise. In the study, athletes used biking and running (in the form of sprints) to create this metabolic response.

HIIT stands for high intensity interval training and incorporates high intensity training with brief times for rest. Interestingly, increased mitochondrial capacity is one of the foundations for high mental performance over the long-term. This feature is essential for increasing our mental energy (via production of ATP) and protecting our brains from long term damage (neuroprotection).

Brain Boosting Exercise

No matter what form of exercise you choose, something is better than nothing. The risks associated with sitting too often are as great as any other detrimental lifestyle habit. Even if the best you can do is go for a walk, it will help with your creativity, improve many cognitive performance functions, and increase your lifespan.

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