DO you exercise? That’s the question most people dread to hear, and wish they have an answer for. Knowing the importance to exercise doesn’t automatically make you want to hit the gym. So how can you convince yourself to do what you already know you should do: move more?
A recent talk by Harvard psychiatrist and author John Ratey as part of MIT Media Lab’s Wellbeing Seminar Series last year, proves that understanding the science of how exercise positively affects the brain, can encourage couch potatoes to go for a jog.
“We need to move,” says Ratey of our evolutionary baggage, early in the talk. “It’s only 10,000 years ago that we were hunter-gatherers and we moved anywhere from 10 to 14 miles a day.”
In his study, Ratey found out that exercise is not only good for our physical fitness, but also for our mental health. Other positive effects of exercise include how they affect our mood and cognitive functions.
One of the main benefits is that is makes you smarter. In school, you may be encouraged to study harder, but do you know that sitting around makes kids fat and unhealthy. “The more fit you are, the better student you are,” explains Ratey.
Research shows there is a strong correlation between fitness levels and grades, regardless of demographic factors like race, gender, or parents’ income.
But the real clincher, according to Ratey, is a Swedish study that looked at 1.2 million boys, who were evaluated at 15 for fitness and IQ, and then tested again when they began compulsory military service at 18. The results: if they got fitter, they also got smarter. That was even true of identical twins. If one exercised but the other didn’t, the one that moved showed a cognitive benefit that the one who sat around didn’t. This was clearly down to the exercise and not anything inborn. “We know exercise improves our ability to think,” concludes Ratey.
Even just standing up starts positive processes in the body and brain. “We know from studies, when we stand our brains are a little bit better, maybe 7 percent better than when we’re sitting,” Ratey says. Regular exercise is best, but just standing up is a good start.
Exercise just doesn’t fire up our brains, it also changes the chemistry inside our heads, making us happier. In fact, according to another study, exercise works just as well at treating depression as the common anti-depressant Zoloft.
“Exercise does the same kind of thing that many of our medicines do. A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” explains Ratey, as exercise increases the amount of neurotransmitters in our brains.
3. Less Stressed
Exercise is not only good for our mental health, it also speeds up the process of neurogenesis, to grow new brain cells. Meditation, learning, and laughing all increase the amount of new cells being born, but exercise is best, said Ratey, adding that “The fitter you are, the more stress it takes to get you stressed.”
Combined with other physical processes, exercise is a fabulous stress buster. Apparently, working out also spurs the release of something called ANP, which dampens panic.
With this advice, you should be convinced by now to exercise more — not just for your body, but also for your brain. But what if you’re too old or unfit to start an exercise program now?
Tough luck, responds Ratey, pointing to Mr. Singh, a marathoner who started running at the ripe age of 89 and continued past his 100th birthday. “Evolution has built in our ability to change at any time if we go for it,” declares Ratey. “There’s really no excuse.”
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