“Cognitive impairment is not so much a consequence of aging as it is a consequence of our sedentary lives”. – John Ratey, MD and author of the book, Spark-The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Physical activity doesn’t just strengthen your muscles; it’s also good for your mind, mood and memory as well. Moving your body such as a brisk walk turns on the brain for better memory, better learning, and new growth of brain cells at any age! Exercise, especially when done outdoors, can also improve your mood giving you more energy and control over your motivation to face the challenges of life. Alternatively, If we’re indoors and sedentary most of the day our biological systems slow down, including our brain which not only affects our mood and energy levels but can lead to neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s.

The pandemic has affected many people’s physical and emotional health, heightening anxiety and depression. During stressful and uncertain times it’s important to find healthy ways to relax, eg. reading a good book or listening to your favorite music, meeting a friend for coffee or a walk, or having a mindful breathing or movement practice. But daily aerobic exercise such as a brisk walk, swimming, biking or running might be the best thing for your brain and emotional wellbeing.

Neuroscientist, Wendy Suzuki believes that exercise is the most transformative thing you can do for your brain for the following 3 reasons;

  1. It has immediate effects on your brain. A single workout will immediately increase levels of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and noradrenaline. Studies show a single workout will elevate your mood, give you more focus and improve reaction time.
  2. The most common finding in exercise research and its affects on the brain is improved attention function.
  3. The most transformative thing that exercise has on your brain is its protective effect. If you think of your brain as a muscle, the more physically active you are, the bigger and stronger your hippocampus and prefrontal cortex get. Why is that important? Those two regions of the brain are most susceptible to cognitive decline and neurodegenerative diseases as we age.

How Exercise Affects The Brain

From an evolutionary perspective, our hunter gatherer ancestors had to be cognitively engaged to sustain daily physical activity for their survival. Complex activities such as hunting and foraging requires navigating unpredictable terrain and awareness of surroundings. This “plays a key role in memory and executive functions such as problem solving and planning”. Studies show that these are the same areas of the brain that seem to benefit from exercise as well. Anthropologist researcher David Raichlen, argues that being sufficiently engaged in cognitively challenging aerobic activity is an adaptive trait we share with our hunter gatherer ancestors. This trait may be responsible for what we often see as healthy brain aging. The prevalence of neurological disorders today may be a result of our sedentary lifestyles and how our brains evolved to be cognitively engaged in physical activity. This is why exercise is one of nature’s most effective medicines, no matter your age.

Although health guidelines suggest that adults engage in 150-300 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity each week for optimal health, a brief exercise session of 20 minutes can quickly improve your mood. Since people with depression have low energy they should engage in lower intensity of exercise that they find enjoyable and preferably with a friend. This could be key to motivation over time. Also, remember that motivation often follows action, or in other words, “you don’t need to feel good to get going, you need to get going to give yourself a chance to feel good”. However, if your depression is getting the better of you, you may want to talk with a therapist, especially someone with a more holistic approach to mental health.