Why Your Brain Loves Exercise: A Guide for Parents and Students

Posted by Deborah Farmer Kris on Dec 5, 2018 11:50:54 AM

In Habits of Mind -- a weekly class for all middle school students -- we explore how the brain works and how they can use that knowledge to become stronger students.

There are two foundational health habits that are necessary for optimal brain functioning: sleep and exercise. Without these, we compromise our brain’s ability to focus, attend, memorize, analyze, synthesize, persevere, and make sound decisions.

I recently wrote about the power of sleep for the Washington Post -- you can read it here. This week, we turned our attention to exercise.

When people talk about why they “should” exercise, they usually talk about the physical benefits -- such as cardiovascular health. When I asked the girls what they knew about the “whys” of exercise, that’s what most of them talked about: it’s healthy for your body.

Yet the benefits also extend -- quite dramatically -- to the brain. Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at Columbia University and author of Happy Brain, Healthy Life, argues that “exercise is the most transformative thing that you can do for your brain today.” Here's why.

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1. Exercise Improves Cognitive Functioning

Exercise stimulates the growth of new neurons. It produces a chemical call BDFN which acts like fertilizer, strengthening neurons and making them less susceptible to breaking down. This supports vital cognitive strengths such as creativity, decision-making, focus, and memory. The benefits are both immediate and long-term. Dr. Suzuki’s research has found “a single workout can improve your ability to shift and focus attention, and that focus improvement will last for at least two hours.” And consistent exercise has protective benefits as we age. As she shares in her TED talk:

Think about the brain like a muscle. The more you're working out, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex gets. Why is that important? Because the prefrontal cortex and the hippocampus are the two areas that are most susceptible to neurodegenerative diseases and normal cognitive decline in aging. So with increased exercise over your lifetime, you're not going to cure dementia or Alzheimer's disease, but what you're going to do is you're going to create the strongest, biggest hippocampus and prefrontal cortex so it takes longer for these diseases to actually have an effect.
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2. Exercise Supports Mental Wellness

Exercise releases endorphins -- hormones such as dopamine and serotonin hormones that boost your mood and reduce anxiety. In addition, exercise also supports healthy sleep habits -- and sleep correlates strongly with emotional regulation. Dr. Charlene Gamaldo, director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Sleep notes that “We have solid evidence that exercise does, in fact, help you fall asleep more quickly and improves sleep quality.”

soccer 3How much exercise is needed to get sustainable benefits? As Dr. Suzuki shares, “You don't have to become a triathlete to get these effects. The rule of thumb is you want to get three to four times a week exercise minimum 30 minutes an exercise session, and you want to get aerobic exercise in. That is, get your heart rate up. And the good news is, you don't have to go to the gym to get a very expensive gym membership. Add an extra walk around the block in your power walk. You see stairs -- take stairs. And power-vacuuming can be as good as the aerobics class that you were going to take at the gym.”

Remember, it’s easier to form good habits when others around you are working on these habits, too. As a parent, reflect on and talk to your kids about your own efforts to improve sleep and exercise. What small changes can you make as a family to support sleep and physical activity? Schedule in a weekend family walk or host an impromptu evening dance party? Make shared sleep or movement goals? These small recalibrations are worth pursuing: your child’s brain will thank you.

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