The benefits of exercise and good nutrition are certainly well known. Not only can a balanced and consistent exercise program and healthful eating lead to a better quality of life and even lengthen your life, some recent research indicates that it is also great for your brain, especially in avoiding and curing depression.
Have you ever noticed how much better you feel about life after a brisk half-hour walk? Recent studies have shown that exercise is just as effective at fighting depression, as anti-depression drugs are. Our brains are composed of nerve cells known as neurons. The gaps between these neurons are bridged by chemical neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine, also known as the “mood” chemicals. These are the chemicals in the brain that effect alertness, vitality, tranquility and euphoria and more importantly, they stave off depression. A recent study lead by Dr. Monika Fleshner at the University of Colorado at Boulder has shown that exercise works to improve depression and that it increased serotonin and dopamine levels in the brain. And for those who must take medications, exercise in conjunction with anti-depressant drugs seems to cause the drugs to work more effectively.
Exercise also helps the brain in other ways such as cognitive functions. Children who engage in aerobic exercise score higher on tests, says Dr. Charles H. Hillman at the University of Illinois at Urbana. In addition, he also discovered that aerobic exercise not only increases the levels of serotonin and dopamine, but also actually increases the size of your brain, particularly the hippocampus, which is the part of your brain that controls emotion. Also, it seems that exercise allows the brain to retrieve latent memories.
Anyone who has exercised knows how much better you feel after a session. The “runner’s high” is a well know phenomenon that distance runners can often experience. It is difficult to know exactly how much exercise we need to do in order to achieve these positive feelings and effects, but Dr. Fleshner feels that 70% of the program should be cardio (aerobic), 20% strength training, and 10% flexibility training (stretching).
Looking at the nutrition side of this equation, we know that just like poor eating can harm normal blood circulation to your heart, the same is true of the brain. The better blood flow is up to your brain, the more oxygen and nutrients are available in order to sustain itself. Therefore, an eating program that is vegetable and fruit dense and low in trans fats and saturated fats, and yet includes monounsaturated healthy fats will help keep your arteries from clogging. But there is even more. Lately, vast amounts of research has been done on the effects of omega 3 oils on brain function.
We all know that the sedentary lifestyle of the last two generations has brought on a whole host of medical problems. It seems that this lifestyle is partly responsible for the increase of depression in the world as well. So, get off the couch and away from the computer, put on those running shoes, get outdoors and go for a walk, do some strength training and start to feel great about life! Keeping your brain in shape as well as the rest of your body is another way to “add hours to your day, days to your year, and years to your life.”