3 Ways Exercise Helps Your Brain and Boosts Confidence
Whatever your reasons for disliking exercise, it may be time to reframe your thinking from something you do for your physical appearance to something you do for your mental health.
Advances in technology and medicine have allowed researchers to shift their primary focus away from the physical benefits of exercise to the psychological. They have been able to pinpoint precisely what is taking place in your brain when you exercise, and the results are pretty remarkable. They may even help you change your entire approach to exercise and weight loss.
Stress and Anxiety
Scientists have found that by implementing an exercise routine you can retrain your brain to feel stress at appropriate moments, rather than feeling persistent anxiety.
When we face a physical attack or an emotional setback our body creates a stress hormone called cortisol. This hormone is beneficial in regulating blood pressure and the immune system and helps protect us.
However, we are all faced with an increasing amount of daily pressure and therefore have elevated levels of this stress hormone. While a little bit is a good thing, constant exposure to cortisol can result in many health risks including weight gain, heart attacks, and depression.
Exercise helps in gaining control when cortisol is released. When we elevate our heartbeat, it creates a controlled stress, which also produces cortisol, but mimics the quick “fight or flight” that we evolutionarily were meant to experience. This release of cortisol from physical stress without any associated emotional stress tricks our bodies into feeling less sensitive to perceived anxieties.
Memory and Mental Clarity
Stress has adverse effects on our physical health, and that includes our hippocampus, the area of our brain that is responsible for memory and decision-making. After weeks, months or years of stress, our memory and coping mechanisms suffer, but they can be repaired.
While the theory used to be that our brain was one of the only organs that didn’t create new cells, it’s been found that exercise is one of the few things that can help generate new growth in our hippocampus.
One study followed a group of middle-aged adults for 12 weeks of exercise training and found that number of neurons in their hippocampus dramatically increased. With the repair of the hippocampus, the researchers found, through the use of an MRI, that the blood flow increased, which contributed to the participant’s growth in memory retention and compartmentalizing reactions.
While endorphins are probably the most well-known temporary benefit to exercise, the positive feelings from regular exercise have been demonstrated to improve self-esteem in the long-term.
A two-year study followed 143 middle-aged women who were in a controlled exercise trial. During that time researchers monitored the levels of self-esteem and self-worth, relative to the increase in physical activity. After the two-year period, they found that healthy levels of exercise contributed to higher self-esteem and overall improved self-perception.
The improvement of self-esteem was associated with positive emotional and social adjustment and an increase in positive health behaviors, such as continuing with their exercise routine and making better food choices.
Type of Exercise
The majority of studies conducted around how exercise improves mental health have found that cardio is the best form of exercise.
This doesn’t mean that you have to start running several miles at a time. Anything that is elevating your heart rate above resting can contribute to improved mental health, including a brisk walk or yard work. And while 120-150 minutes (2 to 2.5 hours) a week is recommended, doctors suggest that taking small daily steps towards your goal will allow you to start receiving these brain benefits.
Effects of Exercise and Physical Activity on Anxiety
Longitudinal Examination of the Exercise and Self-Esteem Model in Middle-Aged Women
Bridging animal and human models of exercise-induced brain plasticity
Effects of acute bouts of exercise on cognition https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12595152
The Effects of Aerobic Activity on Brain Structure
Physical Exercise for Brain Health https://www.brainhq.com/brain-resources/everyday-brain-fitness/physical-exercise