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How sustained exercise can improve mental health

21 July, 2016

We all know that regular exercise will improve your life. Exercise helps control weight, combats health conditions and diseases, improves your mood, boosts energy, promotes better sleep, and can be a generally enjoyable thing to do. But did you know that exercise can help improve your learning and memory?

According to scientists at the Academy of Finland, sustained patterns of exercise can promote the development of new connections in parts of the brain associated with learning and memory, a process known as neurogenesis. This is not new information, but what is interesting is that the research team also found resistance training and high intensity aerobic exercise were not as effective at promoting neurogenesis, and that genetics could play a role in how much of an effect exercise has on neuron formation. 

Different forms of exercise have varying degrees of influence on neurogenesis

For the study researchers exposed rats to several different forms of activity. One group of rats ran on a wheel regularly, one group remained sedentary, and another engaged in resistance training and high impact training. Compared to the sedentary group, the rats running regularly had two to three more formed neurons, while the third group saw minor development of neurons. 

What this shows is that while going hard in the gym might be great for weight loss and muscle-building results, if it’s improved mental health, learning ability and focus you are after, a softer, more sustained form of exercise may be more beneficial.

Your brain is no different to the rest of your muscles in the body - you either use it or lose it. As exercise increases the heart rate, your body pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also encouraged the body’s release of a plethora of hormones, all of which participate in providing a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. Aerobic exercise stimulates the brain plasticity by stimulating the growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain.

Why distance running is so much more potent at promoting neurogenesis than high intensity training remains unclear, however lead researcher Dr.Miriam Nokia speculates it’s because distance running stimulates the release of a particular substance in the brain known as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) that is known to regulate neurogenesis. Essentially, the more miles you run, the more BDNF you could produce. This could ring true for other long distance forms of exercise like biking or swimming. 

However high intensity interval training may undercut potential brain benefits by putting excess pressure on the brain. High intensity training can be much more physiologically draining and stressful than moderate running, and this stress tends to decrease adult hippocampal neurogenesis. Effectively, you tire the brain using a fluctuating “go hard, so soft” technique, taking away the potential to improve learning ability and focus. 

The relationship between exercise, focus and learning 

While the above study shows that aerobic exercise can be used to improved neurogenesis, there are more benefits than just the growth and development of nervous tissue. Regular sustained exercise can: 

Increase energy: The more you move, the more energised you feel. Regular physical activity improves your muscle strength and boosts your endurance, giving you the energy you need to think clearer and come up with new ideas.  

Sharpen focus: Exercise improves the brain in the short term by raising your focus for two to three hours afterwards. For example, if you completed a workout prior to a presentation, you would perform at your peak. If you worked out before a big study session, you’d be able to take more in. 

Enhance your mood: Exercise releases endorphins, also known as nature’s mood elevator. Studies have shown that emotion affects memory in different ways, influencing encoding and retrieval of information. Emotion can distort memory, and a good mood can help us process information more efficiently. 

Help impulse control: Exercise helps trigger endorphins that improve the prioritising functions of the brain. After exercise, your ability to sort out priorities improves, allowing you to block out distractions and better concentrate on the task at hand. 

What about a “runner’s high”?

Many runners claim to experience a state of euphoria while running; a heightened sense of wellbeing that stems from endocannabinoids. These powerful painkillers, released during long-distance running, also stimulate the secretion of the neurotransmitter dopamine from various neuronal populations in the brain. Dopamine is known as the brain’s pleasure-inducing reward chemical. While there’s more to it than that, this is largely the appeal of many recreational drugs - including cannabis, nicotine, heroin and cocaine - as they stimulate its secretion.

The function of endocannabinoids is to suppress the unpleasant sensations you get from overworking your body. It’s what our ancestors needed when chasing prey for hours on end, and it’s what we need today when trying to make it to the finish line during a long-distance marathon. In order for these endocannabinoids to be triggered we must put our body under continual strain, and a simple walk just won’t cut it. Neither will short bursts of high-intensity training such as sprint runs, as this type of fast-paced exercise demands oxygen, which generates lactic acid and halts the release of endocannabinoids.  

So what does all this mean? 

What all this means is that in order to exercise for increased brain strength, we must look at ways to stay physically active for as long as possible. By treating yourself as a “hunter-gatherer”, as opposed to a sedentary sloth or weightlifting warrior, you can simultaneously sharpen your focus, build greater concentration, promote neurogenesis and reduce negative thoughts. Not to mention you’ll maintain your weight, stamina and muscle gain. 

So what are you waiting for? Get up, get running, and start reaping the benefits today!

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All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified medical practitioner. CBHS endeavours to provide independent and complete information, and content may include information regarding services, products and procedures not covered by CBHS Health Cover policies. For full terms, click here.

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