We all know that exercise is good for our physical health, but research has shown that physical exercise is also good for brains. Yes, getting physical raises the level of feel-good hormones called endorphins but it also raises levels of BDNF – brain-derived neurotropic factor to the uninitiated.
“I cannot over-estimate how important regular exercise is in improving the function of the brain,” says John Ratey, clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard. “Exercise stimulates our grey matter to produce Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
This Miracle-Gro is BDNF. When we take physical exercise, our working muscles send chemicals into the bloodstream, including a protein known as IGF-1. Once in the brain, this stimulates the production of BDNF which helps new brain cells, and their connections, to grow.
In addition, levels of other neurotransmitters are increased after the sort of exercise session that will raise your pulse and cause a bit of a sweat (tiddlywinks players don’t qualify) for at least 20 minutes.
“Dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine – all of these are elevated after exercise,” says Ratey. “So having a workout will help improve focus, help keep you calm and reduce impulsivity." He goes as far as to describe the effect of exercise as being like a natural dose of Prozac or Ritalin – but with out the deleterious side effects.
Ratey's gold standard, which needs to be built up to gradually, is: one hour of moderate exercise (power walking or jogging) four days a week; a shorter (45 minute burst) of intense activity (squash or running) twice a week, combined with strength training and balance drills.
What's more, the positive effect of exercise continues long after your daily session. So whatever your age, if this isn’t a good enough reason to get exercising – what is??!
Spark! The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, Quercus publishing, 2008