What are the effects of exercise? While the positive physical effects have long been identified, scientists are now beginning to discover a whole range of mental benefits. Recent research suggests that regular exercise can enhance both your mood and your brain power. Exercise can help in various ways:
- It reduces stress: Research shows that exercise is very powerful at fighting the damage caused by stress. When you exercise, your body releases a range of chemicals, including serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, all of which have been shown to help you to relax and reduce the effects of stress.
- It fights depression: More and more doctors are starting to take notice of the positive effects that exercise can have on stress. In fact, according to researchers, it is as effective as antidepressants, and has none of the negative side effects.
- It boosts learning: Exercise stimulates blood flow to the brain, which helps the brain to produce more key chemicals called growth factors. These growth factors help to make new brain cells, which is a key part of learning. At a more practical level, researchers have found that kids who exercise more get better grades.
- It increases self-esteem and improves body image: Almost all workouts are very measurable - you can see yourself getting fitter, losing weight, getting stronger. These positive results are very effective at improving people's self-esteem and body image.
- It makes you feel better: It has been known for a long time that exercise makes you feel better - in the 1970s there was a lot of talk about the so-called "runner's high" - and now we know why. When you exercise you release brain chemicals called cannabinoids which boost your mood. The bottom line? You will almost always feel better after a workout than you did before.
While the mechanism behind some of these mental benefits is still unclear, researchers are uncovering the processes that explain others. For example, researchers at Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago have uncovered one reason why exercise is so good for your brain.
According to the researchers, regular exercise reduces the production of a chemical called bone-morphogenetic protein (BMP). Reducing BMP output is crucial, because BMP works to slow the production of new brain cells. In addition, exercise increases the output of the delightfully named Noggin. Noggin is another brain protein, but in this case it is a positive one, as it works to fight the effects of BMP.
While much of this research is in its infancy, it is becoming clear that regular exercise provides a whole range of benefits to both the way your brain functions and the way you feel.