Exercise…and the Brain!

Dr. Lisa Angstman, a colleague and friend of Stone House, has summarized excerpts from Dr. Ratey’s “must read” book titled: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain:


Our culture wrongly treats the mind and body as if they are separate entities. To the contrary, a plethora of research within the last decade suggests the unitary nature of mind and body – it’s all one thing. The traditionally held belief is that exercise only has physical effects. However, exercise is actually the single most powerful tool to optimize brain function. It builds and conditions the brain as well as enhances both mental and social well-being. The reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function optimally.

An exciting development in neuroscience research has been to confirm neurogenesis. Contrary to the old notion that when brain cells die, we cannot replace them, brain cells actually DO grow back – by the thousands! Exercise provides the path to neurogenesis. It does so by sparking connections and growth among our brain’s cell networks. It increases blood volume, regulates fuel, and encourages neuronal activity and neurogenesis.

The brain is a flexible adaptable organ that can be molded by input in the same way a muscle can be sculpted by lifting weights. The brain responds as muscles do – growing with use and withering with inactivity. The more we use our brains, the stronger and more flexible they become. Activity leads to brain growth. Inactivity leads to decay, literally shriveling the brain. Luckily, exercise can reverse this process by physically bolstering the brain’s infrastructure. Exercise releases a cascade of neurochemicals, growth factors, and proteins (particularly BDNF) that act as miracle grow for the brain. Brain scans demonstrate that individuals who improve their fitness will increase brain volume in frontal and temporal lobes in as little as six months. The brain is constantly being rewired and we can be our own electricians.

Moving our muscles produces proteins that travel through the bloodstream and into the brain, where they play pivotal roles in the mechanisms of our highest thought processes. There is a positive correlation between physical activity and academic achievement. Fit children score better on cognitive tests and executive function. Exercise also improves rate of learning. We can learn and function more efficiently with exercise. For example, research shows we learn vocabulary words 20% faster after exercise. Exercise influences learning directly at the cellular level by improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information.

Exercise increases important neurotransmitters: serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine. Serotonin acts as the police officer of the brain by keeping brain activity under control. It affects mood, impulse control and self-esteem. Exercise ramps up serotonin levels, which can calm us down and enhance our sense of safety. Norepinephrine amplifies signals that influence attention, perception, motivation, and arousal. It wakes up the brain, gets it going, and improves self esteem. Dopamine is related to motivation, learning, reward, attention, movement.

Exercise has a profound impact on mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems! Higher fitness levels relate directly to positive mood and to lower levels of anxiety and stress. Research indicates that people who exercise are less depressed, less anxious, less neurotic, and more socially outgoing. Most psychiatric issues and chronic stress result from the brain getting locked into the same pattern – one of pessimism, fear and retreat. Active coping with exercise moves us out of this territory.

*Anxiety – Outrunning the fear Exercise lessons anxiety in the following ways:
1. It provides distraction. Exercise literally puts the mind on something else. Plus the anti-anxiety effects of moving last beyond the activity itself.
2. It reduces muscle tension. Research shows that anxious people have overactive electrical patterns in their muscle spindles and that exercise reduces that tension (just as beta blockers do). There are “tranquilizing” effects from exercise.
3. It builds anti-anxiety brain resources. Exercise increases serotonin and norepinephrine both in the moment and over the long run. It also triggers the release of GABA, which is the brain’s major inhibitory neurotransmitter and the main target for most anti-anxiety meds.
4. It teaches a different outcome. It’s a biological bait and switch. Exercise mimics some symptoms of anxiety, such as increasing the rate of breathing and heart rate. Our mind expects anxiety or panic at the outset of exercise, but instead ends up with a positive association with the symptoms.
5. It reroutes our circuits. By activating our sympathetic nervous system through exercise, we break free from the trap of passively waiting and worrying.
6. It improves resilience. We learn that we can be effective in controlling anxiety without letting it turn into panic. Exercise provides self mastery. In consciously making the decision to do something for ourselves, we begin to realize that we can do something for ourselves. It’s a useful tautology.
7. It sets us free. If we are locked down – literally or figuratively, we’ll feel more anxious. People who are anxious tend to immobilize themselves – finding a safe spot to hide from the world. Agoraphobics feel trapped in their homes, but in a sense any form of anxiety feels like a trap. When in an anxious state, we begin to anticipate that everything is going to be a disaster, and so we try to avoid everything and our world begins to shrink. The opposite of that, and the treatment, is taking action, going out and exploring, and moving through the environment. By doing something other than sitting and worrying we reroute our thought process around the passive-response center and dilute the fear, while simultaneously optimizing the brain to learn a new scenario. The fact that aerobic exercise works immediately to fend off the state of anxiety has been well established for many years. Bursts of exercise (running up and down stairs, jumping rope, jumping jacks) for a few minutes can quell feelings of anxiety on the spot. These short bursts of activity serve to “reboot” the brain and we can feel immediately more in control. Exercise is active coping: doing something in response to whatever danger or problem is causing anxiety, rather than passively worrying about it. We begin to see ourselves as active rather than passive. Exercise curtails feeling frozen and this can have the ripple effect of re-engagement in other areas of life.

There exists an inverse relationship between people who exercise and depression. Research has established exercise to be at least as effective as antidepressants and better in the long run. And exercise has the benefit of providing immediate relief, whereas antidepressants take weeks to be fully effective. Exercise can lift our mood with one session. And over time leads to lasting positive results in improving mood. Exercise results in a less pessimistic outlook and more interest in the world.

Exercise counteracts depression at almost every level. Depression is an erosion of connections – in our lives as well as between brain cells. Exercise reestablishes those connections. It regulates all the neurotransmitters targeted by antidepressants: norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin. Unlike many antidepressants, exercise doesn’t selectively influence anything, but rather adjusts the entire brain chemistry to restore normal signaling. Additionally, endorphins in the brain dull pain in the body and produce euphoria in the mind. Exercise clearly elevates endorphins.

*Depression involves disparate systems and different parts of the brain. It’s not only about feeling empty, helpless, hopeless. Depression also involves learning, attention, energy and motivation. And it affects the body, shutting down the drive to eat, sleep, have sex and generally care for one’s self at a primitive level. Depression can be thought of as a form of hibernation – a survival instinct to conserve resources in an environment void of hope. “Keep still and stay out of harm’s way”. If we view depression as a sort of brain lock – then exercise (like antidepressants and ECT) acts as a sort of shock sending sparks to change the dynamics in the brain. The key is to wake up the brain and body to pull ourselves out of the downward spiral. Exercise is our evolutionary method of generating that spark. It lights a fire on every level of the brain, from stoking up the neuron’s metabolic furnaces to forging the very structures that transmit from one synapse to the next. At its core depression is defined as an absence of moving toward anything and exercise is a way to divert those negative signals and trick the brain into coming out of hibernation.

*Attention Deficit Disorder
It is helpful to think of ADD as an attention variability disorder; the deficit is one of consistency. Both dopamine and norepinephrine are strongly implicated in regulating the attention system and exercise increases these neurotransmitters immediately. There exists a strong relationship between movement and attention. Better fitness clearly translates to better attention. Exercise primes our state of mind by optimizing our ability to pay attention and be alert and motivated. Ritalin eases ADD by raising dopamine and thus calming the mind. Exercise will do the same. One of most common ADD symptoms is an abnormal sleep pattern and exercise normalizes and aids sleep. If a combination of exercise and stimulants are used to treat ADD, the recommendation would be to exercise in morning. The calm and clarity from exercise will last about 90minutes, at which time the stimulant can be taken as these effects dissipate.

Regular exercise is highly recommended for people with schizophrenia to help reduce negative symptoms as well as to decrease the risk of other illnesses that may result from inactivity. Research demonstrates that exercise attacks the negative symptoms of schizophrenia. Exercise can relieve depression, improve self-esteem, increase motivation, increase social contact and improve healthy eating, hygiene and sleep. It leads to improved ability to make plans, express emotion and find pleasure in life. It can also help combat weight gain from medication.

The reason that life expectancy for people with schizophrenia can be up to 25 years less than average is not due to schizophrenia per se, but rather to chronic illnesses that result from living a sedentary lifestyle and being overweight. Exercise can improve both life expectancy and quality.

Age happens. There’s nothing we can do about the why, but we can definitely do something about the how and when. Inactivity feeds the cellular death spiral and actually shrivels the brain. If we are not busy living, our bodies will be busy dying. Exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but also reverses cell deterioration associated with aging. Exercise keeps us “younger” because it:

1. Strengthens the cardiovascular system
2. Regulates fuel including glucose. High glucose levels increase by 77% the chance of developing Alzheimer’s.
3. Significantly reduces the likelihood of developing dementia. Those who exercise at least twice per week are 50% less likely to have dementia. Also, simply being overweight doubles the risk of dementia. |Exercise reduces obesity by burning calories and reducing appetite.
4. Elevates the stress threshold – combats the corrosive effects of cortisol, a product of chronic stress.
5. Lifts mood.
6. Boosts the immune system – where as stress and age deplete it. The most consistent risk factor for cancer is inactivity.
7. Fortifies bones – women lose 30% of bone mass by age sixty unless they take calcium and vitamin D (free with 10 minutes daily of morning sun) and do some form of exercise or strength training. Lifting weights helps prevent osteoporosis.
8. Boosts motivation – exercise counteracts the natural decline of dopamine which is the key neurotransmitter to motivation and motor systems.
9. Fosters neuroplasticity.
10. Balance hormones. Exercise helps balance the diminished hormones of women going through menopause. It tricks the brain into trying to maintain itself for survival despite the hormonal cues that it is aging. Exercise provides protection, lost to the ebb of natural hormones, against heart disease, stroke and breast cancer. It clearly helps with mood symptoms associated with menopause. And the protective effect of exercise on memory especially strong with women.
11. Helps us live not simply longer, but better.

OTHER BENEFITS from exercise

*Although seemingly counterintuitive, moving will actually reduce fatigue. Exercise improves quality of sleep and helps prevent and treat sleeping disorders.

*Studies demonstrate that by adding physical activity to our lives, we become more socially active. Exercising with another person further increases serotonin levels immediately just from being around another person. It is also well established that it’s easier to maintain exercise if working out with someone else. Exercise boosts confidence and provides an opportunity to meet people. The vigor and motivation that exercise brings helps us establish and maintain social connections.

*Exercise fights the urge to smoke because in addition to smoothly increasing dopamine it also lowers anxiety, tension, stress levels

*It enhances pleasurable brain chemicals. Marijuana and chocolate activate the same receptors as does exercise in the brain.

*Daily exercise in the early stages of Parkinson’s helps stave off symptoms

*Mothers who exercise during pregnancy have babies who are more neurologically developed and perform better on a variety of tests. Preliminary findings suggest that these gains last with improved academic performance years later.

Exercise is a preventive medicine as well as an antidote. It nourishes our brains. If we get our bodies in shape, our minds will follow. When we challenge ourselves at the physical level, we’ll be able to not only do more while we’re working out, but also in every domain of our life. We’ll have more vigor and energy, less negativity, and a greater sense of control.

If we understand how physical activity improves brain function, we will be more motivated to include it in life in a positive way rather than think of it as something we should do. If we get to the point where we consistently say to ourselves that exercise is something that we want to do, then we are charting a course to a different future that is less about surviving and more about thriving!

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