You’ve heard that staying active is good for the mind, and a la “Legally Blond”, exercise releases endorphins into your body which make you happy – but this is truly the case (even if it shouldn’t be used as a defense in a murder trial…see the movie if you’re not sure what I’m talking about). Turns out barre class or a bike ride does much more than strengthen your body, it can actually strengthen your mind, as well. Tough thing is – you actually need to train yourself to stick with it.
Details: it is absolutely amazing, but research has shown that regular exercise can actually…
- turbo-charge your brainpower
- improve mood, memory and focus
- fight depression
- combat age-related cognitive decline
What’s more, how you frame exercise in your mind can actually effect how your body reacts to pain during workout: so in class when we say “don’t let your mind take over! your body can do it!” and “it’s about building mental strength as well as physical strength – hold on!”, we’re not just spouting motivational hearsay but fact: how you approach exercise and your mental outlook will actually impact whether you dig deeper and finish, or quit.
The first step: get yourself to go!
It’s really about making exercise a habit: a part of your daily norm and a given – initially, don’t let yourself have the mental debate whether or not to exercise (we know who wins that debate every single time!) because if you are able to stick it out and create a habit, your mind will actually begin to crave the way exercise makes you feel – making it easier to make yourself go to a workout.
This is scientifically proven: regular exercisers have got an easier time making themselves get out of bed for a sweat session rather than hitting the snooze button, or going to a post-work workout rather than straight to the couch. Why? Your brain begins to anticipate the positive perks of exercise: “When you have a positive reinforcement, you’re much more likely to do something,” confirms John Ratey, MD, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Makes sense.
So how do you power through the initial period, training your brain to crave exercise so it becomes an easier habit to maintain? Don’t go it alone, unless you have willpower of steel! We’ve talked before about the benefits of a workout buddy, whether it’s a friend or an instructor who knows you’ll be in class – schedule a workout with a friend or catch up over a walk rather than over the phone, or let an instructor know you’ll be coming to class again – you won’t want to let your friend or that instructor down. What’s more, scheduling your classes in advance online can also help increase the likelihood that you’ll stick with a workout – planning in advance can make all the difference, and if you “already paid for it”, chances are you’ll want to get what you paid for and go!
Next steps: what is going on in your brain as you begin exercising?
Great, we’re going to work on starting a routine using the above tips to get ourselves going, and we’re intrigued by the fact that exercising can actually make you feel happier…what’s going on with that? Within minutes of getting yourself moving, your brain begins lighting up: first with a rush of feel-good hormones like serotonin and dopamine (by the way, these also improve memory and learning capabilities) according to Women’s Health Magazine. This movement “sets off your reward circuitry,” says David Glass, PhD, a professor at Kent State University, “that’s what makes exercise rewarding and possibly addictive.”
As your muscles work and start to grow weary, you feel the desire to pull the plug on your workout. However, if you are able to keep yourself going (Women’s Health Magazine cites 20 minutes or more), your natural opioid system kicks into high gear, flooding your brain with painkilling chemicals like endorphins. Your body may release the substances to cope with the stress of exercise, and according to Arne Dietrich PhD, of the American University of Beirut “if you give your body time to release these chemicals, you may feel much better during and after exercise.”
Last steps: the afterglow!
As your heart rate rises when exercising, blood flow is increasing, and over time more capillaries develop in the brain, which in turn promotes new brain-cell formation. Women’s Health explains the result: you increase the production of neurons – literally building your brain over a period of weeks by creating new nerve cells, says Brian Christie PhD, from the University of Victoria in Canada. We’re talking about building up areas of the brain that are vital to learning, memory and higher thinking – and surges of protein in this part of the brain (as occurs with the nerve cells firing when exercising) may contribute who why adults who exercise display sharper memory skills, higher concentration levels, more fluid thinking and reasoning, and greater problem-solving than those who remained sedentary.
Remember that to get these fabulous effects of exercise, you need to just stick it out: while exercising, think positive – even if it’s a bit of a stretch. Telling yourself that your workout is going to make you feel fantastic and reminding yourself of the benefits could actually help your brain adhere to those thoughts over time, and make you less likely to struggle to get yourself to workout!