The Importance of Exercise

Exercise is a powerful method to improve emotional and cognitive functioning that is relatively simple. We’ve all heard it – the mind, body, and spirit are all connected. The more that I learn and grow, the more I view this as an essential truth. There is plenty of scientific research that supports the mind-body connection. Admittedly, the spirit part of the equation is bit harder to pin down, so let’s just focus on the other two.
We know that exercise is good for our bodies. It lowers cholesterol, reduces body fat, improves heart functioning, reduces the risk of osteoporosis, lowers the risk of diabetes and a multitude of cancers and so on. Recent research indicates the exercise not only improves our physical health, but it can greatly improve our emotional health as well. Recent studies suggest that regular exercise can be as effective as antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication in improving mood. Think about that…a powerful way to improve your physical and emotional well-being that is basically free and without deleterious side effects!
But there’s even more good news about the positive effects of exercise with regard to the mind-body connection. Scientists are now discovering that exercise enhances cognitive functioning as well. I have read several studies on this topic but one that stands out had participants randomly assigned to either an exercise group or a control group. The exercise group was able to be much more productive at work, basically getting about 1.5 hours more word done in an 8 hour work period when compared with the non-exercising group’s work productivity. The researchers hypothesized that the exercise group’s alertness, concentration, mental acuity, and energy level were superior to that of the control group. Improved cerebral blood flow as the result of exercise might have helped to produce these benefits. So, the idea that one doesn’t have enough time to exercise because there is too much work to do really doesn’t hold water. One can actually be more productive at work because of regular exercise. Wouldn’t you want to get an extra 1.5 hours of work in per day and use the extra time for exercise and other things?
Until recently it was thought that the adult brain did not generate any new neurons. I clearly remember listening to a graduate professor in my Biological Bases for Behavior class state this as an immutable fact. It was kind of depressing to hear that, but I accepted it as an unfortunate reality.
Discoveries in the area of neuroscience over the last decade have toppled many long-standing beliefs about how our brains work. As it turns out, the adult brain can generate new neurons. I had read that finding before, but I found out some fascinating details about this in Sharon Begley’s new book, “Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain.”
One thing that we know about depression is that people who are experiencing depression have difficulty recognizing and appreciating novelty. To a person who is depressed, things seem flat and bland. It turns out that people who are experiencing major depression have a shrunken hippocampus – an area of brain that facilitates the formation of new memories. Neuroscientists have discovered that physical exercise actually creates new neurons in the hippocampus. It’s a process known as neurogenesis. These new neurons are especially good at recognizing novelty, which is one major reason why exercise has been shown to elevate depression. AMAZING!!! Yet another reason to exercise – the creation of new neurons that leads to the alleviation of depression.
You don’t have to be an exercise fiend to reap the benefits. Just 3 to 4 30-minute sessions per week of mild to moderate exercise can do the trick. Of course, you should check with your physician before beginning an exercise program, especially if you have not been physically active for some time or have medical conditions/past injuries. It is best to start slowly and gradually work toward your goals.

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