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Exercise: For the Butt and the Brain

 Girl running at sunset

It’s not as if I didn’t already know it.

On some level, I’ve known it for a long time. Exercise greatly affects the quality of my daily life.

As young adults, most of us probably spend way more time thinking about how to take care of our physical body in a way that makes us look good in a pair of jeans, but not that much time thinking about how to make our brains perform better.

In my twenties, I began having some episodes of feeling low. At first, I kind of blew it off as just a case of the blues, any of the typical reasons we reach for in trying to figure out why we’re not feeling so great.

It was only when I took up running that I began noticing fewer episodes and that even if I did start to feel a little low, it didn’t feel as grey as it had before.

With life’s normal cycles of change, I have gone through periods of time where I’ve exercised less frequently, only to notice that my low points were worse when I wasn’t exercising. Having figured this out about myself, I was intrigued by Dr. John Ratey’s book: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

I’m so glad I read this book. It is full of case studies that back up Dr. Ratey’s assertions about the indisputable value of exercise on our emotional well-being as well as our physical.

One of the most intriguing studies discussed in the book is that of the Naperville Central High School where P.E. is about teaching a fitness lifestyle instead of sports. Read about the Naperville fitness model and the school’s incredible academic success here.

Some quotes from the book:

Among those with the least cognitive decline over a four-year period, three factors turned up: education, self-efficacy, and exercise.

I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters. It’s a handy metaphor to get the point across, but the deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters—along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain.

Now you know how exercise improves learning on three levels: first, it optimizes your mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.

If you’ve been looking for a reason to revitalize your exercise efforts, read Spark. I’m convinced now that the fact that it makes us look better is actually a side benefit to the far more important effects it has on the health of our brains.


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