Remember to Exercise: Your Brain Will Thank You!

We all know that exercise and physical activity are helpful in maintaining good physical health (I hope!) We know that exercise builds muscle, and increases fitness, and generally can make life a little easier. That makes sense – you use your muscles, heart, and lungs when you exercise, and they get stronger to keep up with the demands of your workout.

You might also know that exercise is good for your mental health. Maybe you heard that it’s a primary treatment recommendation for depression, or just heard a friend describe getting a mental boost from a workout. But since most people aren’t doing mental calculus while they work out, where does that boost come from?

exercise fun

Our short term feel-goods, as it turns out, come in part from the brain itself. During times of stress, which is how the body perceives exercise, the brain releases endorphins – those hormone things everyone has heard of. These chemicals help block pain signals that the stress might be causing – kind of a preventative measure. These endorphins also create feelings of euphoria (they are chemically similar to morphine!) and can increase positive thoughts and feelings. Since this provides both an immediate and (with regualr exercise) lasting effect, exercise is a particularly useful aspect of treatment for depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses.

Endorphins, it turns out, are not the only players in the exercise-and-brain game. During times of stress, the brain releases another chemical, brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which serves to protect the brain cells and their connections with each other, called synapes. BDNF helps improve cell signaling and can reverse cell degradation. Improved connections between brain circuits mean improved memory, attention span, and processing speed. In some studies, increased levels of BDNF have actually been shown to have a reparative effect, and may restore learning abilities and memory. These improvements have been shown to occur even with modest exercise, like going for a daily walk.

Neurons

The neuroprotective effects of BDNF can have a some life-long benefits. Numerous studies of older adults have shown that those who were more physically active earlier in life were less likely to develop degenerative brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease or dementia. People in the early stages of these diseases also benefit from exercise and physical activity – the aforementioned walk can be helpful in preventing disease progression. BDNF production does tend to decrease as we age, so since we can all benefit from the chemical boost that exercise provides, getting started with an exercise program will be beneficial regards of age or mental health.

Chemicals aside, exercise actually benefits the brain in some of the same ways that it benefits the rest of our body. The arteries in our brains are very small, but still susceptible to the same blockages as any other artery in our bodies. Tiny blockages can lead to potentially unnoticeable ministrokes that damage tiny areas of the brain and potentially leading to long term decline mental health. Fortunately, these arteries are also positively affected by exercise – the same way as the rest of our blood vessels. Good blood vessel health also means optimal blood flow to the brain, and with it, optimal delivery of nutrients to the brain. Consider the fact that the brain is by far the largest user of blood sugar in our bodies. Sounds like a good idea to keep those channels open, right?

Brain

Take home message: Exercise is good for more than just your muscles, heart, and lungs, and the buzz you get after a workout or a walk may just be your best defense against mental illness, at any age!

What Is Functional Exercise??

“Functional” has been a buzzword in the health and fitness industry for many years. But how many people do you know that can tell you what it actually means?

To some, the word functional may conjure up images of exercising while standing on one foot to improve balance, or doing everything sitting (or standing – though please dont!) on a big rubber swiss ball to switch on your “core”.

In reality, functional exercises are those that help you in real life. This could include exercises that mimic the movements of your job, or that help you improve strength or cardiovascular fitness levels so that the activities of everyday life become easier. There is no particular group of exercises that are “functional”. Rather, any and every exercise can be functional, depending on what you do (or want to do) day in and day out. For example, every time we get up out of a chair – and for many of us, that’s frequently – we use the same muscles as we do when we do a squat. Likewise, a half-hour of heart rate-increasing exercise regularly can help keep you going when you’re on your feet all day. And, just maybe, if you need to work on your balance, doing a few things while standing on one foot will help. But it doesn’t have to be your entire exercise session!

Functional Exercise Real Life Movement
 Squat  Sitting down and standing up
 Lunges  Riding a bicycle, walking up stairs
 Bicep curls  Picking up a little kid
 Dumbbell Pullover  Freestyle swimming

So is your program functional for you? Whether they’re called functional or not, the best programs will evaluate your daily movements, energy needs, and lifestyle goals, and focus on exercises that will improve or maintain your abilities in these areas. To create a functional program for a client, trainers should be looking at those three points, and figuring out which movements they need to include to get you your best results. Some exercises should look a lot like what you do outside the gym, but be aware that some won’t, since creating strength for movement can require different muscles and joint angles than you might expect. Our bodies are complex machines, and it’s rare that anyone ever pushes, pulls, or sits down in the same perfectly straight line all the time! Bottom line: look at your life, then look at your exercise program. Do the movements look the same? If they do, then congratulations – you’re functional!