Mind over matter: how fitness changes your brain
We’ve all heard a coach in our past or an athletic friend tell us how working out makes you feel good. Endorphins make you happy or whatever. But turns out it’s more than just a phrase to get you in the gym. Studies show that an active lifestyle can actually rewire your brain and send positive, motivating chemicals into your thought process. Picking up some weights and getting your heart pumping isn’t all physical, it’s a mind game as well.
The concept of “brain gains” starts in the prefrontal cortex. This region of the brain is responsible for executive functioning like problem solving, memory, attention span, multitasking and verbal reasoning, according to BodyBuilding.com. Physical training has been proven to improve this brain function, especially for the few hours after you leave the gym. That feeling of mental clarity and heightened alertness isn’t all in your head, it’s a biological reaction you’ve created by just getting your body moving.This mental boost appears to happen in the prefrontal cortex as well as the visual cortex where we process visual information and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is involved in heart rate, according to Science Daily.
Physical activity also stimulates the release of happy hormones like serotonin and dopamine, according to Healthline. Not only do these neurotransmitters make you feel better, but they also help to relieve pain and stress. They act as analgesics, which diminish the brain’s perception of physical pain, according to WebMD. One stress hormone in particular, adrenaline, can come in handy during an intense workout, but too much of it pumping through your body can be harmful. Staying active keeps these levels balanced and your mind at ease.
Not only does fitness make you feel less stressed, but it chemically changes the way you are able to respond to stressful situations. A Princeton University study revealed that exercise helps neurons grow in the part of the brain that controls anxiety. Meaning that if two people are presented the same hostile circumstance, the sedentary person’s brain will stir up a more anxious response than the active person. The months or years of physical activity have taught that person’s brain that they are more physically capable of escaping the scenario, so they are able to remain calm.
Certain neurotransmitters, called endorphins, are responsible for the concept of a “runner’s high”. This burst of energy and motivation surges whenever you exert your body, and push your limits for an extended period of time. When you aren’t exercising, these endorphins help to regulate your mood throughout the day.
Just like physical fitness can impact your mental health, your mental health can impact your physical fitness. Healthy serotonin levels help regulate your appetite and sleep cycle, as much as they regulate your everyday mood.
Fitness is also a great hobby when it comes to the neuroplasticity of our brains. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to preserve existing nerve structures and create new ones, according to Vitruvian Fitness. This process allows your mind to literally rewire itself and adapt to your new activity. Neuroplasticity is what pushes human beings to overcome what seem like insurmountable obstacles, like learning to live with one less limb or learning to navigate the world if you lose your sight. Being active teaches our brain how to care for itself when the absolute worst is thrown at us.
This neurogenesis effect happens in the hippocampus of our brains. The hippocampus is also where we push the boundaries of imagination. This hot spot of creativity helps us imagine future events in our lives, according to MindBodyGreen. Exercise has been shown to make this part of the brain more efficient, meaning that feeling good in our bodies literally makes us more hopeful of the future. Brain imaging has shown that the pursuit of better health intrinsically makes us create bigger goals for the days ahead.
Our brains have a unique way of giving us an “A” for effort. Even if you try to be a marathon runner and finish last in your heat, your brain still builds the same white and gray matter responsible for improved coordination and speed. Studies have shown that the physical effort we put into something new is more important than how skilled we are at it. Just the exercise itself is enough to mold your mind in a positive way.
From hormonal balance to chronic disease prevention and treatment for depression, there’s no shortage of things that an active lifestyle can do for your mind. Sometimes the best medicine to an emotional problem lies in a little physical activity. Fitness not only helps your body withstand the test of time, but it also keeps your cognitive ability and awareness where it should be as you age. It’s easy to forget that your brain is a muscle that needs oxygen and blood flow as much as the rest of your body to stay in tip top shape. So next time you get in a workout routine, set looks aside and notice how your thinking starts to change. With time and consistency, not only will your body transform, but you will get better and better at mastering your own mind.
Take it from me
I tell people all the time that despite all my physical accomplishments, the mental and emotional change was the most noticeable for me when I got healthy. Taking care of my body for the first time in years made me more positive, more cordial with people, and more determined in my everyday tasks.
My goals stopped being just something to talk about and started to be a detailed checklist that I would accomplish no matter what. Because I was willing to put effort into my body, my mind followed suit and put more effort into tackling life’s daily obstacles. I didn’t mind doing the dishes or cooking meals or folding laundry. My mind was suddenly more patient, more focused and more detail-oriented in everything that I did.
Age old anxiety problems subsided and I felt on top of every emotion that came to pass. Yes, pushing my physical limitations was hard and sometimes painful, but the 360 degree transformation in my mind and how I emotionally felt was worth all of it and more. Fitness healed me from the inside out.