We're all aware of the more common benefits of exercise: weight loss, decreased stress, and improved cardiovascular conditioning. However, new and exciting research is increasingly demonstrating that exercise is good for more than just our brawn; exercise is really good for our brain. Here are 5 little-known benefits of exercise on the brain:
1. Increases GABA: Research shows that certain exercise boosts GABA, a neurotransmitter involved in inhibiting nervous system activity and therefore decreasing anxiety and inducing feelings of calm. A 2010 study found that three sessions of yoga per week boosted participants’ levels of GABA as well as improved mood and decreased anxiety.
2. Improves our Attention: Exercise that involves coordination or following along with more complex routines, such as dance or step aerobics, also improves our capacity to learn by enhancing attention and concentration. All forms of exercise help increase growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the number of new brain cells—but complicated activities provide the biggest brain boost. German researchers found that high school students scored better on high-attention tasks after completing 10-minutes of a complex fitness routine as opposed to 10 minutes of regular activity. People who are physically fit as well as those who are currently involved in aerobic training also have increased control over their ability to focus their attention.
3. Preserves Cognitive Function and Decreases Cognitive Decline: A 2011 study looking at the cognitive function of elderly adults over 2 to 5 years found that the most active participants scored significantly better on tests of cognitive function and also showed the least amount of cognitive decline. Ninety percent of the study’s participants showed no decline in their cognitive abilities throughout the course of the study.
4. May Prevent Alzheimer’s and Dementia: Aerobic exercise has been shown to protect the hippocampus, one of the first regions of the brain to succumb to Alzheimer’s-related damage. A 2000 study showed that inactive men who were genetically prone to Alzheimer’s were four times more likely to develop the disease than those who carried the trait but worked out regularly. Furthermore, UCLA researchers have shown a relationship between low physical activity and a higher risk of dementia.
5. Bigger Brains: Your biceps aren’t the only thing that get bigger with exercise. Multiple studies suggest that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory have greater volume in people who exercises versus people who do not. Bigger brains equate to better cognitive function, memory, and less risk of age-related decline.
So how much exercise is needed to harness these brain benefits? While the verdict is still out, it seems that 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week is sufficient. It seems not to matter whether this exercise is in one or two longer sessions or shorter sessions throughout the week. Only have 20 minutes? That’s ok. Take a brisk walk, get your heart pumping, and feel the brain-boosting benefits!
There has been a steady push in the medical field over recent years towards increased patient empowerment. The status of doctor as “God” or all-knowing is falling out of favor for a more balanced approach where patient and doctor are equal partners on a journey towards health and healing. Successfully navigating our modern medical system requires being your own patient advocate. By being actively involved in your healthcare, you not only gain a greater sense of control, but also an increased confidence over your decisions, greater medical literacy, better treatment adherence, and even better health outcomes.
To become your own patient advocate, consider the following guidelines:
IS THIS DOCTOR THE RIGHT FIT?: A skilled physician with a great reputation may not be a good match for you just as you may not have enjoyed a teacher who everyone else thought was great. Ask yourself:
SPEAK YOUR MIND: Often times, patients don’t feel worthy of taking up a doctor’s time or are afraid to honestly voice their thoughts and concerns. Instead:
MAINTAIN YOUR OWN RECORDS: One of the most significant costs in our healthcare system is repeating labs and imaging that have already been done. Furthermore, having your records on hand to present to a new doctor can mean the difference between immediate action and waiting to collect data. Keep your own records and ask for copies of reports and lab work after each visit.
COMMUNICATE YOUR CONCERNS AND DESIRES: If there is information you possess or decisions or preferences that will affect your course of action, be upfront about these with your doctor. For example, if you have financial considerations that will prevent you from choosing a course of treatment, state this upfront. Or if you know you would favor an alternative, natural or complementary approach to a conventional one, let your doctor know. Sometimes our preferences naturally change, however, sometimes the pressure of doctors can unnaturally sway our opinion.
KNOWN WHEN TO RESPECT AND WHEN TO QUESTION YOUR DOCTOR’S OPINION: Whether it be your primary care physician, an experienced acupuncturist or a naturopathic doctor, if you’re unsure whether to trust your physician’s opinion, consult a third party who has a vested interest in you but not a financial stake in your choices. For example, I have many patients consult me when trying to decide between different (and often costly) fertility options for an unbiased opinion. On the other hand, if you doctor is reinforcing the idea that he or she does not think you’re a good candidate for a given procedure, consider that your doctor may have your best interest in mind, wishing to save you both time and money. Sometimes we want something to work out so badly that hearing the sad truth that it may not succeed can be devastating. However, accepting this and looking to the new option can provide a door of possibility that may previously have been closed.
Dr. Elizabeth Winter practices integrative and functional medicine in San Diego, CA and sees patients from a distance via Skype. For more information about her and her practice philosophy visit About Dr. Winter.