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Move It or Lose It!

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Move It or Lose It!

Why exercise makes you smarter.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D. More by this author
Jun 02, 2011 at 10:00 AM

One of my favorite cartoons features a squirrel lying on a psychiatrist’s couch, and the squirrel says something like, “Since discovering that you are what you eat, I realized I was nuts.” When you recognize that despite all of your mental refinement you’re still an animal engineered to move, it becomes obvious that lying around can also make you nuts. Brain chemistry goes south when you can’t work off stress, and your mood becomes more negative . . . hostile, depressed, or anxious. The most effective way of improving your mind-set and enhancing the skills you’ve already learned is to simply get off your butt.

Get with the program. Regular aerobic exercise ensures that your brain continues to produce new neurons and adapt to change. Do you get at least five half-hour periods of moderate exercise each week? If not, what’s your excuse?

We all know that exercise is a good idea. It increases one’s life span significantly since it reduces heart disease, cancer, osteoporosis, and a variety of other diseases, as well as increasing metabolism and regulating weight. Let’s take a look at how exercise affects our brain and mood state. Regular aerobic exercise enables the brain to continue to grow and adapt to change by producing new neurons and rewiring its circuits throughout life.

“Rewiring” is an example of physical resilience, which enables the mental resilience dependent on it to function.

When I was a student at Harvard Medical School, the dogma was that we were born with all the neurons we were ever going to have. We lose some as we age, but producing new ones just didn’t happen. However, we know better now. More advanced methods of brain imaging have revealed that new neurons are created all the time as old ones die off. In this way, brain architecture changes and adapts to current circumstances, a form of remodeling called neuroplasticity. The new circuits have the power to transform the way we perceive the world, how we think, and how we act.

Without moderate exercise, the brain not only fails to grow and remodel, but it can also shrink. Stress in particular causes the loss of cells and shrinkage of brain mass in areas critical for memory and planning. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate activity (such as brisk walking) five days a week, or 20 minutes of vigorous activity (such as running) three days a week. And this small investment of our time has a spectacular payoff: it prevents the decrease in brain volume that begins in our 40s, optimizes brain function, blocks a lot of the cognitive decline (that is, fuzzy thinking and poor memory) accompanying aging and stress, and helps to lift depression.

I’ve often wondered why we continue to sit on our butts even though we know so much about the benefits of staying active. And after years of encouragement by numerous health agencies and fitness magazines, between one-half and two-thirds of us still don’t get even the minimum exercise necessary to maintain optimal health.

But now that you know what it does for your brain, you may be encouraged to stick with a consistent routine.

About Author
Joan Z. Borysenko Ph.D.
Joan Borysenko, Ph.D., is one of the leading experts on stress, spirituality, and the mind/body connection. She has a doctorate in medical sciences from Harvard Medical School, is a licensed clinical psychologist, and is the co-founder and former dir Continue reading