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We're all familiar with the obvious benefits of exercise—regular physical activity can keep us looking and feeling fit and healthy, increase our energy levels and confidence, and help us maintain high levels of self-esteem. Staying active can also help us fight off a wealth of potentially life-threatening illnesses, including strokes, diabetes, and heart disease. What's more, conquering the often overwhelming “exercise obstacle” and overcoming excuses, apathy, and laziness can remind us that we're capable of bravely facing any challenge that life throws our way.
In contrast, avoiding exercise and all forms of physical activity like the plague can have the reverse effect. Embracing laziness and inactivity can leave us feeling unhealthy and unfit, send our confidence and energy levels plummeting to the basement, and eat away at our self-esteem. Letting the “exercise obstacle” win the day will surely not inspire and motivate you to set and go after major life goals.
It may seem clear by now that exercising on a regular basis is in your best interest. However, if you're still not sold, perhaps this will help seal the deal—not only does exercise help fuel and maintain a healthy body, it can actually improve your ability to think and retain information. It's true—your mind and body are interconnected in amazing ways, and nurturing one will benefit the other.
According to a recent article in The New York Times, “many scientists suspect that exercise alters the biology of the brain in ways that make it more malleable and receptive to new information, a process that scientists refer to as plasticity,” and that “…many past studies have shown that exercise prompts the release of multiple neurochemicals in the brain that increase the number of new brain cells and the connections between neurons…these effects improve the brain's plasticity and augment the ability to learn.”
What exercise does
Although research regarding how exercise and brainpower work together is continual and ongoing, recent studies have shown the following exciting cognitive benefits.
Boosts brainpower: If you're looking to take your brain's ability to the next level, you can't do much better than regular exercise. Studies have shown that exercise can actually increase the volume of key areas in your brain—how's that for a real boost?
Enhances thinking ability: Regular workouts will help kick away the dreaded “brain fog” that keeps you from thinking clearly and keep your mind and thoughts razor sharp all day long.
Helps you process and remember new information more effectively: If you're trying to acquire a new skill or task, like learning a new language or tackling a new job responsibility, combining it with regular exercise can be an unbeatable combo. New research suggests that physical activity can increase the size of the medial temporal and prefrontal cortex of your brain, key areas that regulate and control thinking and memory—so you'll be able to master that new skill faster than ever before.
Improves ability on cognitive tasks: Do you have an important test for work or school coming up? Or maybe you just want to perform better on puzzles and board games? Whatever your mental goals are, you better believe that exercise will help you succeed on all sorts of cognitive tasks that test your intelligence and brainpower.
Keeps away the negatives: Yes, it's true—regular exercise will help keep your mood positive and upbeat, help you achieve more restful sleep at night, and help reduce anxiety and stress—all things that can help your brain work at its absolute best.
When, what, and how much?
So…now that you know it does work, let's explore how you can make it work for you. This includes the when, what, and how much regarding exercise and brainpower.
Although there's some debate regarding the type of exercise that best serves to promote brain function, according to a recent article by Harvard Medical School, “researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.”
Research also suggests that although you'll receive a brain benefit regardless of when you decide to exercise, the most promising results typically occur when you do your workout before or even during a cognitive task. This suggests that we all might learn best while we're being active, and it may have interesting consequences on how our institutions of learning are set up. Perhaps classes on treadmills or exercise bikes aren't too far off in the future?
Another big question you might be wondering about is how much exercise you should do in order to receive a cognitive benefit. The same Harvard Medical School report suggests that “standard recommendations advise half an hour of moderate physical activity most days of the week, or 150 minutes a week.”
So how can you incorporate exercise into your life? If you're worried that you're simply too busy to exercise or find the very idea of exercise daunting, a great way to take a step forward towards a regular active lifestyle is to start small. Try taking a brief yet brisk walk for 10–15 minutes each day, and gradually increase your workout in both length and intensity as time passes.
Listen to your body, it will tell you when you're ready to take on more and bigger physical challenges. Remember, every journey—no matter how long or arduous—starts with a single step, and the best way to go nowhere is to stand still and do nothing.
Now that you know all about the many benefits, both physical and mental, that exercise will bring to your life, put the excuses aside and get up and get moving towards your successful future!