Posted in Blog, Medical Mondays, Medicine

How Exercise Benefits Your Brain

My interest in lifestyle medicine is my inspiration for starting this segment of my blog called “Medical Mondays,” where I will share the medicine/science behind some sort of healthy habit or lifestyle trend. I love the intent of lifestyle medicine, which strives to look at a patient as a whole person, including what they eat, do for a living, their activity level, etc. In the same vein, it is important to educate people about the benefits of certain lifestyle choices, thereby empowering them to make informed decisions about their health! I plan to share things that I learn in podcasts, books, journal articles, and class. If you have any suggestions or things you’d like to learn about, feel free to let me know 🙂

The first ever Medical Monday is brought to by Dr. Wendy Suzuki’s TedTalk “The brain-changing effects of exercise.” Most people know that exercise is supposed to be good for us, mentally and physically, but Dr. Suzuki does a great job of explaining the physiological effects exercise has on our bodies. How exactly does exercise improve your mood? What other benefits does exercise have on your brain? I will summarize the take-away points of Dr. Suzuki’s message and here is the link to her TedTalk if you want to learn more.

The short-term benefits of exercise include improved mood and ability to focus. When we exercise, our bodies immediately release the transmitters dopamine, serotonin, and nor-adrenaline, all of which make us feel good. Dopamine is known as a reward molecule, so when we achieve a goal, our body produces dopamine and makes us feel good. Serotonin has various functions, but overall, people with higher levels of serotonin are generally happier. This is why when we exercise and our bodies produce dopamine and serotonin, it makes us feel good! Nor-adrenaline, also known as norepinephrine, increases our energy. The increase in noradrenaline when we exercise is what gives us that energy boost and improves our focus.

Now for the long-term benefits of exercise. Over time as we exercise, we produce new brain cells in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. The hippocampus is the brain region that is largely responsible for long-term memory storage and retrieval. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for decision making and focus/attention. By increasing the brain volume in these regions through exercise, we improve our memory and ability to focus & be productive.

Another benefit of exercise over time is its neuro-protective effect against certain diseases. The hippocampus and prefrontal cortex are the most susceptible brain areas to neurogenerative diseases and cognitive decline due to aging. These are the two same brain regions that become stronger with regular exercise, thereby protecting the brain from aging as quickly as it would without exercise.

You are probably wondering how much exercise is necessary to confer these benefits. Dr. Suzuki recommends exercising 3-4 times per week for at least 30 minutes to get these long term benefits! This can be anything that gets your heart rate up- for some this might simply be a brisk walk, for others it could be a spin class or a strengthening workout! Let me know if you learned anything new or if you have any topic suggestions for future Medical Mondays. 🙂