How Exercise Improves Brain Function & Mental Health From the Core Out

“True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.” - Wilhelm von Humboldt, German Philosopher

The benefits of exercise to our physical health are widely known. We know that as we move our body and exercise regularly, our heart works more efficiently, we function better, and our bodies become more resistant to disease.

Whether it’s slimming down to fit into an old pair of jeans or getting ready for a skin-revealing beach trip, many of us think about exercise as a way for our body to look better. The fitness industry and the media are both very focused on how the body looks, glorifying dramatic weight loss during short periods of time, building visually impressive muscles, and “getting ripped.”

However, the benefits of exercise go well beyond improving how we look – and even how our bodies function. Scientists are learning more and more every day about the benefits of exercise on our brain health and our mental health. Research has shown that the way we move deeply affects both our cognitive and emotional states.

Exercise and Brain Health: Moving Makes Us Smarter.
Although the stereotype is that jocks and gym rats are not smart, the evidence shows that exercise causally increases intelligence. One reason for this is that as our heart rate increases, there is more blood flowing to the brain. This brings more oxygen to the brain and allows it to function better. With this increased functionality, the brain performs at a higher level and has an increased capability to retain and retrieve information.

In addition, exercise causes higher levels of hormones to be released, and this helps foster the growth of brain cells. There is strong evidence suggesting that this increased rate of brain cell growth correlates with a reduction in stress-related hormones. Much of this cell growth is centered in the hippocampus, a region of the brain associated with learning and memory.

Exercise also increases neuroplasticity – the ability of the brain to physically change throughout our lives, which helps us adapt, supports a stronger memory, and increases resistance to brain damage. This encourages the brain to form new and stronger connections.

Exercise and Mental Health: Moving Making Us Feel Better.
Approximately one in five people in the United States experience mental illness in any given year. Regular exercise is a great way to help improve mental health. It has been well-documented that regular exercise improves our mood and our emotional well-being. It is easy for most of us to acknowledge this, yet there are still many barriers that prevent us from getting out and exercising. By understanding the benefits of regular exercise, we can find the motivation to overcome the hesitancy that prevents physical activity.

Depression can lead to us to avoid daily activities and responsibilities, such as going to work. Researchers found that regular exercise reduces the number of days employees call in sick due to depression. It is certainly in the best interest of employers to encourage their employees to be active.

The rationale behind why exercise improves mental health is that exercise leads to pronounced changes in neurotransmitters, including noradrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine, which are linked to better mood. Neurotransmitters are an essential part of the brain's circuitry and the extent of their release can impact depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues.

There is strong evidence that exercise can help manage the symptoms of depression over the long term, addressing chronic depression. This means that exercise isn't just a one-time fix, but it can alleviate the effects of depression over time when it becomes part of a regular lifestyle routine.

Exercising the Core has Unique Benefits.
Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh have found that the strength and functionality of our core muscles have a direct impact on the way we feel. One of the reasons for this unique connection is due to “the motor areas in the brain connect[ing] to the adrenal glands.” Most of the neurons that connect the motor cortex to the adrenal glands are associated with the axial muscles, commonly associated with our “core.” When adrenaline is released, the long-term effect on the body is less stress. What this means is that the core muscles stimulate more adrenal gland activity than any other muscles in the body.

Dr. Peter Strick, chair of the department of neurobiology at the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute notes that “there’s all this evidence that core strengthening has an impact on stress. And when you see somebody that's depressed or stressed out, you notice changes in their posture. When you stand up straight, it influences how you project yourself and how you feel. Well, lo and behold, core muscles have an impact on stress.”

Be Flyte Fit,

Adam Brown

Contributing Writer

Flyte Fitness