Have you ever exercised in the morning, and afterwards, felt that your brain was much sharper? This could be why.
When your brain makes memories, for example, when you learn something new, some cells in your brain have to make new connections to other brain cells. So your brain is constantly physically changing to incorporate new memories and new learning.
Your brain is a collection of cells working in what we might think of as a “soup” of chemicals called neurotransmitters: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine, among others. When the neurotransmitters are in good balance, your mood is better, the ability of the cells to make connections is facilitated, along with your ability to learn new facts.
Harvard clinical psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey, writing in the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, describes how aerobic exercise changes the mix of neurotransmitters in your brain to bring them into a better balance. This more optimum balance of neurotransmitters makes it easier for brain cells to make connections to other brain cells, so your brain is functioning better and faster after you exercise.
Ratey mentions studies that have shown how exercise increases the production of another important chemical “Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF)” which, in both human and animal studies, increases in the brain after exercise. Ratey compares our brains to a garden, and BDNF as a fertilizer which helps our brain form new cells and make connections between existing brain cells.
To summarize: exercise increases the levels of this “fertilizer” in our brain, and helps regulate our neurotransmitter levels. Regarding our mood, Harvard Health Publication Exercise and Depression notes experiments showing how aerobic exercise may work as well as anti-depressant medication for depression, though not as quickly. It is not known for sure why exercise helps depressed individuals, but it is theorized that it is due to improving the mix of neurotransmitters, as well as the production of endorphins (the “feel good chemicals”) when you exercise.
Dr. Ratney calls aerobic exercise an “indispensable tool for anyone who wants to reach his or her full potential”. But he also cautions that “experiments with lab rats suggest that forced exercise doesn’t have the same effect as voluntary exercise”.
So, find some type of aerobic exercises you like to do. Whether it is rowing, football, dancing, running outside or on a treadmill, or fast walking. Choose whatever physical activity or activities you like. The important thing is to just do it, for your body as well as your mind. To improve your mood and your ability to learn new facts.
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