Exercise and Your Brain

We all know that physical activity is good for us. Did you know that exercising not only strengthens your body, but also your brain? James Harris, a Doctor of Physical Therapy at San Juan Regional Medical Center, says the answer is in four letters, BDNF, or brain-derived neurotropic factor.

BDNF increases neuroplasticity or our brain’s ability to make changes and learn. It also helps to regulate and increase the production of chemicals in the brain like serotonin, a chemical that is in short supply in the brains of people who suffer from depression. BDNF is also neuroprotective, meaning that it protects the brain from diseases such as dementia and Parkinson's disease. 

There are many studies showing the link between exercise and increased BDNF production. But what exactly do you need to do to reap the protective benefits? Dr. John Ratey, a psychiatrist and author of Spark, a book about the science of exercise and the brain, suggests that you choose an activity that simultaneously taxes the cardiovascular system and the brain. Another option is to perform a 10-minute cardio warmup, followed by an activity that requires a lot of coordination and balance like rock climbing or yoga.

“Exercise is not just running and lifting weight at the gym. I firmly believe that people who say they hate working out just have not found the right activity,” said Harris. “I encourage you to think outside of the box and to find something that you enjoy. Doing so will increase the likelihood of creating a habit of regular exercise.”

That regular exercise leads to increased BDNF production, which further increases as you perform the activity for an extended period of time. Another great benefit of exercise is combatting stress, anxiety and depression. 

“Exercising helps to regulate and reset our nervous system, which in turn allows us to avoid the ill effects of chronic stress, anxiety and depression,” said Harris. “If poor mental health is a struggle for you, I highly encourage you to make it a goal to find an activity that you enjoy that gets your heart rate up and engages your brain.”

Of course, be sure to talk with your healthcare provider before starting any new form of exercise. Once you’re ready to get started, make a goal to increase your activity level in increments. Take the stairs instead of the elevator or go for a walk during your lunch break. Soon, your increased activity will add up and benefit both your body and mind.

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