by Efe Ozturkoglu | published Jun. 7th, 2018
In the information age, we spend countless hours sitting in front of a computer screen. This sedentary lifestyle not only has detrimental effects to your physical health, but your mental and neural health as well. Regular, daily exercise is one way to help keep your mind sharp.
One benefit of exercise is that it can provide an immediate boost to your mood. According to Seann McArdle, RIT’s Fitness Lab coordinator, this boost happens from any exercise that really pushes your body to do work.
"When you exercise, the release of hormones creates a natural sense of euphoria. Like that idea of a runner’s high for example, where you go for a nice long run and you feel really good about yourself. Well that doesn't just apply to running, it applies to really any physical activity or exercise where the level of exertion is high enough,” McArdle explained.
According to RIT Exercise Science Director Bill Brewer, this “runner’s high” occurs through the production of dopamine in your brain.
“Your mood is basically regulated by the volume and the sensitivity of your brain to dopamine,” said Brewer. ”And dopamine is a neurotransmitter ... that carries signals between areas of neural tissue within the brain.”
Dopamine is also important for staying determined and motivated while doing tasks and attention. As your body produces more dopamine through exercise, it can create long-term changes in your brain and help you keep focused and determined for longer periods of time.
Going into more depth, Brewer explained that the limbic system is a part of your brain that focuses on emotions and feeling. Thus, immediate and long-term effects on your mood and your ability to stay focused can be noticed after exercise.
“The role that [dopamine] plays when integrating with specific receptors in the limbic system is what determines the way we feel,” Brewer said.
According to Brewer, low levels of dopamine can have the opposite effect.
“The lack of dopamine and the inability for dopamine to be properly accepted and processed is one of the major forms of clinical depression. And so then it’s all those happy things in reverse. For a reason or no real reason, you feel despondent, despaired, dejected, degraded and depressed,” he explained.
The lack of regular exercise can also worsen symptoms of clinical or situational depression, since dopamine in your limbic system is responsible for determining your mood.
“Many medications are used to try and correct this — and those are important medications — but in addition to that medication ... or in my opinion, before even bothering with the medication, a person should adopt and adhere to a regular, consistent routine of exercise and allow that to reduce the symptoms of depression,” Brewer said.
Not only can exercise have positive effects on your mood day-to-day and in the long run, but it can also help to minimize the effects of depression. Exercise is a natural, easy way to control dopamine levels, an important factor in reducing depression.
Prevention of Disease
Regular exercise may also help reduce the risk of degenerative brain disease. According to Brewer, there is corollary evidence that people who exercise regularly are at lower risk for Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Brewer stressed however that there isn't much evidence that this relationship is causal and that a much more dangerous risk of not exercising is the formation of atherosclerotic plaque in the arteries leading to your brain.
This specific type of plaque is composed of cholesterol, fat and other substances. It accumulates along the walls of your blood vessels and it can cause interruptions in blood flow.
These disruptions lead to heart attacks when they occur in the heart and strokes in the brain.
McArdle emphasized that physical activity and other important lifestyle changes can help reverse this build-up of plaque in its early stages. Perhaps more importantly, it can slow down the hardening of the plaque before it calcifies and becomes permanent.
“The problem with [using medication without lifestyle changes] is you don’t address all that crap that’s clogging [your blood vessels] in the first place,” said McArdle. "If I start exercising and using these meds so that I clean these things out ... then in time I could possibly get rid of these meds ... because I effectively cleaned them [blood vessels] out through regular physical activity, exercise, changes in my diet and managing my nutrition better.”
Importance of Being Active
McArdle stressed the importance of getting up once in a while and walking around, even if you can’t exercise at the moment. While RIT offers many resources to help you get active, sometimes with coursework and other commitments, it can be hard to find free time to dedicate to a good workout. Even just a short walk for a few minutes can help increase your circulation and burn a few calories. Moving around is especially important during hackathons, where insane periods of inactivity are considered normal.
Exercise can have many positive effects on your body, ranging from physical to mental. It has the potential to boost your mood, aid your mental health and possibly even slow down brain degeneration. Although still an area of active research, it is important to take good care of your body so that it can support your brain for many years to come. So do yourself a favor and exercise more, because a strong mind rests on a strong body.