Building a Better Brain: Start with Exercise

Building a Better Brain: Start with Exercise

On Friday, I introduced you to a new concept: research is finding that we can not only “cope” with mental illness but that we can actually do things to build a better brain! Let’s start exploring what exactly we can do to make that happen.

It turns out that exercise is not only good for your body but also great for your brain!

One of the ways you can rewire your brain is by exercising your body.

Here’s how it works:

  • Challenging your body helps build neuroplasticity. This means that as you push yourself physically the pathways in your brain can begin to change.
  • Studies are showing exercise is an antidepressant. One recent study showed that exercising had similar results to taking an antidepressant for patients with major depressive disorder.
  • Regular workouts might help people prone to anxiety. After all, the body produces many of the same physical reactions — heavy perspiration, increased heart rate — in response to exercise. In another study, subjects who participated in a two-week exercise program showed significant improvements in anxiety sensitivity compared with a control group. They learned to associate the symptoms with safety instead of danger.
  • Studies are showing that exercise reduces the chances of Alzheimer’s. It also slows down Alzheimer’s if you are already suffering from it. In this case, 30 minutes per day, 5 days per week of “huffing and puffing” kind of exercise is recommended.

So how can you get the most mental health benefits out of your exercise?

  • Try exercising 3-5 times/week. While studies vary, it appears most studies point to 3-5 times per week for at least 20-30 minutes/day. Some people would say “vigorous” exercise is best while others say any sort of “physical activity” can be helpful.
  • Personalize it. We are all wired a little bit differently and so as a result we might respond a little differently to various forms of physical activities. Try different kinds of exercise with varying durations and frequency. If you’re not sure yoga is working for you, try some HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), running, recreational sports, etc.
  • Exercise when you don’t feel like it. Unless you have been exercising too much or are recovering from a strenuous workout, don’t opt out because you are feeling “low” or “anxious.” Failing to exercise when you feel bad is like choosing not to take an aspirin when your head hurts. This is the time you need it the most.
  • Tune into your mental state before and after exercising. Keep the physical activity up even if you’ve started feeling better or had a decrease in anxiety or depression symptoms. Exercise seems to be important in both the treatment and prevention of relapse.

 

More to come on other ways to build a better brain!

 

Mary Overstreet, LAPC, LAMFT

moverstreet@ GROWcounseling.com

 

photo: Dr. Abdullah Naser, Creative Commons

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