Exercise gets your brain in shape as well as your body

Providence Health Team

Studies indicate that regular exercise can promote cognitive health.

Physical activity can boost mood, alleviate anxiety and depression and improve memory.

Aerobic and strength training both have benefits, so make sure they're part of your fitness routine.

Having trouble getting out of bed in the morning to get to the gym? Perhaps this will help motivate you to stop hitting the snooze button: Exercise doesn't just tone your body, it also tunes up your brain.

Several recent studies indicate there are great mental health benefits that come with regular exercise. You probably know that physical activity gets your endorphins pumping for a feeling of post-workout bliss, but there are two other important ways exercise can affect the brain for the better.

Reducing anxiety and depression

Pumping weights can pump up your mood. That's one of the findings from a recent study in JAMA Psychiatry that indicates strength training may alleviate the symptoms associated with depression.

Even better: You don't have to bench press 10 times your body weight or have biceps as big as most people's thighs to see results. The study authors say it doesn't matter how often you lift weights, just that you do it. There was no substantial difference between people who did many reps several times a week and people who lifted light weights once a week; there was also no difference based on age or gender. 

These results are similar to a 2016 study that indicated aerobic exercise, such as running and walking, may also help people who are suffering from depression. The findings also suggested that not only are symptoms of depression reduced, but so is the risk of developing depression in the first place. This study, as well as others, help support the idea of using exercise as part of a comprehensive mental health care plan if you have been diagnosed with depression.

Strength training may also be useful in combating anxiety. One study found that resistance training showed promise for improving symptoms of anxiety. That may help explain why it's often suggested that when you feel anxious you blow off some steam with physical activity. As with depression, it's thought that exercise affects the production of hormones and chemicals that boost brain health.

4 positive postures to boost your mood (infographic)

Improving memory

As you age, you may be experiencing blips in your memory. It could be something as simple as forgetting an acquaintance's name or where you put the car keys, but for some people memory loss can be the beginning of dementia or Alzheimer's. While there is no cure for those diseases, exercise is thought to help the brain stay as sharp as possible and improve cognitive function. 

It's believed that exercise reduces inflammation and influences the growth factors that govern brain health, such as the development of new blood vessels and healthy brain cells. In fact, studies suggest that areas of the brain that govern memory, such as the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex, have greater volume in people who workout regularly, compared to people who lead a sedentary lifestyle.

In fact, people who are older with mild cognitive impairment, a risk factor for Alzheimer's, experienced an increase in brain volume after just six months of an exercise program, according to one study. Another research team found progressive resistance training offers similar benefits to people with this same kind of cognitive impairment. 

Exercise's effect on brain health isn't limited to people who are already experiencing problems with memory or other cognitive issues. Physical activity is a hallmark of super agers, older people who have sharp mental acuity comparable to people 20 to 30 years their junior. 

In Midlife, Exercise Can Keep Your Brain and Body in Shape

How to get the exercise you and your brain need

Feeling motivated yet? Making physical activity part of your everyday routine is beneficial in so many ways. If you're looking for a place to start, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers these guidelines for adults ages 18 to 64. (There are also separate guidelines for people age 65 and older.)

150 minutes per week of moderate aerobic activity;

Two days a week of strength-training exercise focusing on all the major muscle groups;

Alternatively, you could aim for 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity (for example, running instead of walking) each week, as well as the two days of weight-bearing work.

Ready for a challenge? Try this 10-minute beginner’s HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout.

Need a primary care doctor to help you find the right exercise program and achieve greater wellness? Find a PSJH physician near you:

If you’d like to talk to a Providence provider about a mental or emotional health issue you’re experiencing, visit: 

AK: Providence Medical Group Behavioral Health Services

CA: Providence Psychiatric Services

MT: Providence Behavioral Health

OR: Providence Behavioral Health

WA: Providence Psychology – Spokane; Providence Medical Group, Olympia Psychiatry; Swedish Behavioral Health

Learn how Providence St. Joseph Health is advancing the future of mental health. Subscribe to our blog and get the best wellness, fitness and mental health updates delivered straight to your inbox.

Recommended for you:

Getting Fit in Your 40s and 50s

The Everyday Better philosophy

Natural ways to treat depression

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.

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