Exercise is beneficial not only for your physical health, but also your mental health.
The topic of healthy living is constantly in the spotlight nowadays. Especially due to the fact that our way of living has drastically changed over the last couple of years compared to the past. We are moving at a faster pace in terms of basically everything. We all are more technologically inclined. Technology dictates the way we communicate, share information, travel, build structures, produce food etc. It obviously influences people’s occupations – which becomes increasingly more demanding and stressful despite the many improvements which science, technology and medical care offer.
Naturally the way in which our modern societies operate affect children’s education. Many of today’s parents didn’t have access to computers and the internet when they were children. Nowadays it is not uncommon to see children doing research for their assignments on tablets or mobile phones. Children also spend many hours doing homework and studying. This isn’t necessarily negative. After all – they are the ones that will continue the progress and development of our societies someday. However, our societies that develop at such incredible rates did not necessarily leave us moving faster. In fact we are physically less mobile – walking less due to transportation, spending less time doing hard labour due to machinery and spending less time on preparing meals due to fast food restaurants. Even our entertainment is the push of a button away… Not to mention some of the harmful aspects, such as pollution that can affect your health and mobility.
Due to this shift in the way we live our daily lives it is therefore more important than ever to have a sharp mind and a healthy body in order to keep up with the challenges we face every day. Some of the greatest ways to ensure physical health is through exercise and playing sports. I am sure you are aware of that fact. Like Jim Rohn said, “Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live”. Doing exercise builds stronger bones, muscles and joints. It controls your weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It also lowers the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart attacks. While some of these issues are not yet of concern for most normal children it is worthy to take note of it. When children form good habits at an early age they will reap the benefits when they are older.
There are many more benefits of being active. Regular physical exercise can benefit your brain, mind and lifestyle. In this article we discuss the following scientifically-proven benefits of physical exercise on the brain:
1. Neurobiological Benefits.
2. Cognitive Benefits.
3. Psychological Benefits.
4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.
1. Neurobiological Benefits.
Neurobiology refers to the biological study of the brain’s anatomy, physiology and nervous system. The brain is the most complex organ of the human body. It consists of the cerebrum (divided into two hemispheres), brainstem, cerebellum, complex organisation of grey and white matter and neurochemicals. The brain processes, coordinates and integrates information and controls most of the body’s functions.
Exercise increases the size of your brain.
The brain can be compared to a computer. When you exercise you put your body under temporary positive stress – which forces your brain to work harder in order for you to perform these tasks. Exercise physically alters your brain through a series of chemical processes. A scientific research study concluded that adults that were put through an aerobic fitness program over a 6 month period experienced an increase in grey and white matter of the brain. This is like upgrading the hardware of your computer and thus transforming it into a greater and more powerful machine.
Exercise increases the birth rate of new brain cells.
Neurogenesis is the process of growing new brain cells. A recently identified chemical called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) is responsible for neurogenesis. According to an American study it is believed that regular short and intense aerobic exercise will increase BDNF in the brain, while strength training does not influence BDNF levels.
Exercise increases energy and reduces fatigue.
Despite many that believe exercise causes fatigue, it is actually the opposite. Researchers from the University of Georgia revealed that 20 to 40 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic-type exercise (such as cycling) can revitalize your energy levels. The impact of the raised energy levels isn’t just experienced physically, but it will also leave you feeling less “drained” mentally.
2. Cognitive Benefits.
Cognition is the mental action or process of obtaining knowledge and understanding through thought, experience and senses. You apply “thinking” to all of the tasks you want to perform. Some actions take more effort and brain power and others happen more or less automatically. The fact is, you can sharpen your cognitive abilities (such as concentration, speed and accuracy) through exercise!
Exercise improves concentration.
Our technologically-driven world puts a lot of strain on our minds, as we have discussed in the introduction of this article. The hours that we spend daily behind computers doing work and research can be mentally exhausting. As a means of escape from this we utilise more technology – computer games and television. Sometimes there is so much technology around us. With social media notifications buzzing, text messages and emails coming in it is hard to focus on one particular thing. That said, technology isn’t a bad thing as such. It improves our lives in many ways. We only have to find ways to utilise it for good and not allow it to distract and hinder us to live healthy, active lives.
Exercise is a great way to clear your mind from all of the constant distractions that is going on. People who are physically fit display much more control over their concertation when participating in a challenging cognitive task. The good news is that exercise can improve focus not only in teenagers and adults, but also in children. A short period of intense activity can improve reading and mathematical skills in children as evidenced in the ‘Effects of the FITKids Randomized Controlled Trial on Executive Control and Brain Function’ study.
The rise of ADHD in in children in recent decades is also a reflection of society’s difficulty to focus. Though the benefit of exercise for children is not new, recent findings done by Dr Betsy Hoza, professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, revealed that children that received “in-school exercise” as a treatment for ADHD showed improvement in their cognitive functioning.
The next time your mind feels clouded and you cannot keep focussed try to download a fitness app or an exercise programme and follow through with it.
Exercise improves memory.
Short term memory is the mind’s capacity to store a small amount of information that is readily accessible within a small time period. Short term memory is often considered as synonymous with working memory, though working memory refers more accurately to the framework of processes used to comprehend, interpret and manipulate the data stored in short term memory. Examples of working memory include recalling a series of digits (0 – 9), names or pictures within less than 2 minutes after exposure. Numerous studies in the past have produced various outcomes pertaining the effects of exercise on working memory. However, it is generally accepted that less than 20 minutes of low intensity cardiovascular exercise (such as walking, running and cycling) yields immediate improvement in visuospatial short-term memory, more so than verbal-audio short-term memory. Cardiovascular exercise done over a longer time period (40 minutes of medium intensity exercise over 6 months minimum) shows more improvement toward verbal-audio short-term memory in the long term.
When short term memory is retained after more than 2 minutes of the initial stimuli it becomes long term memory. Long term memory is the mind’s capacity to store data indefinitely. Such memories can last for just a few hours, a few days or even years depending on their strength. Examples of long term memory include the recollection of the details of a story or images presented 30 minutes earlier. A study on long term cardiovascular exercise shows improvement in long term memory since it prevents deterioration of the hippocampus (which is responsible for consolidating short term memory into long term memory).
Exercise increases IQ and improves academic performance.
Intelligence quotient (IQ) is a score derived from standardised tests designed to assess a person’s intelligence - relative to the average performance of other people of the same age. Research shows that a person’s IQ is influenced by fixed genetic factors (especially the brain’s structure) and modifiable environmental factors (such as birth, nutrition, physical and mental health and education) – a “nature” and “nurture” relationship, as explained in the ‘Journal of Neurology & Stroke’, available to read on ‘MedCrave’. While there isn’t much you can do to change your genetic makeup, there is substantial evidence to suggest that exercise can improve your IQ. A research study that obtained data from 1 million men in Sweden concluded that cardiovascular fitness is associated with global intelligence scores. Their logical, verbal, visuospatial, and technical scores reflected the same. Young men who improved their cardiovascular health between the ages of 15 and 18 also improved their IQ.
Academic achievement and physical fitness is closely connected. Aerobic exercise is the most prominent to provide better fitness and academic results. Regular exercise is responsible for spurring the growth of new brain cells. New brain cells make it possible to retain new information – which is crucial for learning. Read point number two in ‘Neurobiological Benefits’ of this article for more on this process.
It is worthy to note that the relationship between IQ and academic performance does not necessarily correlate. Some students with a high IQ doesn’t always experience success in the classroom. The opposite is also true. Some students with a lower IQ can achieve high academic success. What is definite is that both IQ and academic performance can be improved through exercise.
3. Psychological Benefits.
The brain not only coordinates the performance of your bodily functions and cognition, it is also responsible for your psychological and mental states. Life experiences, events and activities that happen throughout your day impact the way you think and react in situations and toward your surroundings. In other words your thoughts, emotions and personality – everything that makes you unique – is dependent on the brain. Sometimes things happen in your life that cause you unease, stress or distress which can be mentally taxing. Exercise can be utilised in order to make these negative mental states positive. It will turn you into a more resilient person that can handle these situations and feelings better.
Exercise reduces stress and anxiety.
Neurochemicals are released in the brain when you exercise. These include endorphins, dopamine and norepinephrine – which is responsible for cognition, awareness and enhanced mood. In addition to the “feel good” neurochemicals that are released during exercise, it diminishes cortisol and adrenaline – the hormones associated with stress.
Exercise can also be used as a technique to manage stress and anxiety since it clears your mind from personal-, work-, financial- and other stressors. Regular exercise will help you to maintain a positive attitude – even if you are exposed to a stressful or traumatic experience.
Exercise boosts mood and happiness.
Due to the chemicals released in your brain, your mood will improve almost immediately after you work out. While “being in a good mood” will increase your chances of “having a good day”, mood is considered to be very fluctuating and can change throughout the day. Happiness is something that is more enduring. For example, someone can accidently bump into you when you walk. This might cause you to be startled and a little bit upset because you dropped something. However, this single act won’t affect your overall happiness and cause you depression. That is why it is not only advisable to exercise for the sake of maintaining a positive mood, but also securing long term happiness.
A study of Canada’s National Population Health Survey (NPHS) revealed that long term physical activity has a strong influence over a person’s happiness. The results were as follow:
- Inactive people were twice as likely to become unhappy, compared to active people.
- People who became inactive were more likely to become unhappy.
- People who became active were less likely to become unhappy.
Exercise prevents and fights depression.
Depression is a state of low mood which may affect a person’s thoughts and behaviour and cause disinclination toward activity. A depressed mood is often a normal reaction toward negative and traumatic life experiences – such as the loss of someone close to that person, rejection, disease etc. Depression is considered an illness, or, more appropriately, a mental disorder, once it lasts for several weeks with consistent symptoms that cause disruption in a person’s ability to function normally. It is accompanied by loss of interest in enjoyable activities and having low self-worth. Depression can be caused by genetic and/or environmental factors.
Depression is a difficult subject to talk about. Despite it being estimated by the World Health Organization to affect 350 million people (and numbers continuing to rise) many still have trouble to grasp the true extent of its affects and have mixed opinions about treatment methods. More cases of depression is reported by females, however men suffering from depression is more likely to die as the result of suicide. What is alarming is that it not only affect adults, but also children and teenagers. Depression in children and teens are often more aggressive and self-destructive. Suicide among 15 to 19 year olds is the third leading cause of death in western societies.
Like we already mentioned, treatment is a very controversial subject. Since most people these days are looking for an easy fix because they live very stressful, unhealthy and busy lives. They don’t have the will, energy or time to take care of themselves otherwise and would rather get a prescription for medication from an industry that take advantage of their willing consumers. That being said, depression is a very serious issue and medical treatment from professionals should always be sought. The flipside is that not all treatments have to come in the form of a capsule. There is substantial evidence to suggest that exercise is equally effective to prevent and cure depression compared to other alternatives.
The saying “prevention is better than cure” is extremely accurate. Even if you make a remarkable recovery from an illness or disease the chance that it will leave some form of mental or physical scar is very likely. The largest study on the prevention of depression, led by King’s College London and the Black Dog Institute in Australia revealed that 20 minutes of daily exercise can cut the risk by one third. In fact, as little as one hour per week can significantly reduce the possibility of depression (across people of all ages), but doing no exercise increases the possibility by 44%.
What’s interesting is that people suffering from depression can find alleviation through exercise as evidenced by the University of California – Davis Health System. Exercise restores the levels of two common neurotransmitters (metabolic pathways of chemicals responsible for sending messages in the brain), known as glutamate and gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). When these are depleted it leads to depression.
4. Lifestyle Quality and Performance Benefits.
Exercise can improve other aspects of your life and allow you to live life to the fullest.
Exercise enhances productivity.
Everyone wants to get things done properly and correctly in the least possible amount of time. Why? If you can achieve more, you have more opportunity to grow and improve yourself. Being productive gives you a sense of accomplishment which this is crucial for success.
A study conducted by the University of Bristol measured the productivity of 200 individuals in 3 different organisations. They found that their levels of productivity were higher on days of doing exercise and lower on days of no exercise. Workout days showed the following positive results:
- 21% enhancement in concentration.
- 22% enhancement in completing work on time.
- 25% enhancement in working continuity.
- 41% enhancement in motivation.
Exercise enhances creativity.
When you think of the word “creativity”, exercise or sports is most likely not your immediate response. You would rather ascribe creativity to the arts: drawing, painting, music, dance and writing. Creativity is also required in finding connections between seemingly unrelated data, presenting things in new ways as well as solving problems uniquely. This makes creativity a vital requirement for success in various fields – be it technology and inventions, architecture, food, marketing and business. Yes, even professional sport athletes that can think creatively during a match will likely score better than just playing according to textbook guidelines.
Exercise, as evidenced in a study by Stanford University, especially low intensity exercise such as walking, can improve cognitive efforts involved in creativity significantly. They found improvement in convergent thinking (the ability to find solutions), as well as divergent thinking (the ability to conceive new and original ideas).
Exercise enhances sleeping cycles.
In order for you to function properly you have to get a healthy amount of sleep every night. Not only does sleep help your body to recuperate, but also more importantly your mind. Sleep regulates a number of functions in the brain. These include among other things communication between neurons, the improvement of memory and cognition and the removal brain toxins. Sleep is crucial for stabilising your moods and energy levels. Thus it plays a vital role in your productivity, creativity and learning abilities. A disturbance in sleeping patterns (such as excess or a lack thereof) can have many negative effects on your body, mood and performance.
Short periods of high intensity workouts will yield positive effects on your sleeping cycles – including improvement in total sleep time and with less disturbances.
You are unique, participate in something that suits you.
Something to take into consideration when starting out with exercising and/or learning a new sport is that each child is unique. The type of exercise or sport, the duration of each session and number of times you should exercise per week will depend on: your age, stage of bodily development, other health factors, interests and preferences. Some children are natural born athletes. Others have yet to develop the stamina, motor skills and hand eye coordination to perform certain acts. However, most children will likely not get it right the first time. You don’t have to worry about it. It will take some practise before you get the basics down before seeing any real results. Exercise should be seen as a continuous process.
Do not be afraid of exercise and sport.
Reasons why some children avoid exercise and sport are usually because they are afraid of failing and being judged. It may have happened in the past and that is why they choose to avoid participation on the sports field. This experience caused them great stress and lowered their self-esteem. If this ever happened to you, you should not let it prevent you from trying again and living a healthy lifestyle. There is an awful lot of fun activities that you will miss out on. You also won’t experience all the benefits that exercise can offer your brain.
Start with small steps.
Find a sport or type of physical activity that you like. Decide on activities that reflect your personality and abilities. Choose between an individual or team sport. For instance, if you don’t like group activities ask yourself why? Are you reserved about all group-related activities or only when it comes to sport? Is it simply because you like doing things on you own? You can decide on how much physical contact and competition you would like – or not like to have. However, open your mind to the possibility that despite having a negative experience in the past you are likely to meet similar minded people who are there for the same reason as you.
Make sure that before you even start that you are mentally and physically comfortable doing it. Go over the rules of the sport, read up on it and see how others are doing it. When you are ready to participate make sure that you are warmed up properly beforehand so that you don’t hurt your muscles. Don’t push yourself too hard, especially if you don’t feel comfortable doing it. Speak openly to your parents about how you feel about a sport. Tell them whenever you want to stop and try something different. If your school doesn’t offer an activity that you are interested in, try to join a club or find a private instructor.
There is plenty of time to become a sports hero. Do not overdo it.
It is very important for you to be exposed to healthy competition because it teaches purposefulness, perseverance, stress management and sportsmanship. Unfortunately, there is a lot of pressure from parents and teachers on children to practice too early and too seriously for competitions. This can have a negative impact on you when you are driven to extremes. It can take away all the fun of that activity and possibly deter you. Excessive intensive exercise may interfere with your growth and have severe side effects. When you push yourself too hard it will interfere with your energy levels, sleeping patterns and mood. The exercise will no longer be beneficial for your brain and your academics. When you begin to use supplements and prohibited substances to help your progress it becomes very dangerous. If you are unsure of any form of exercise or substances, you should get a professional’s opinion. “Moderation” is an important concept to consider when working out your exercise routine.
We aim to get young people interested in physical exercise through this article and to encourage and inspire them to practice a sport. We hope that this article opened your eyes to the wonderful benefits of exercise on the brain and how it can improve your academics. Let us know what your favourite exercise and sport activities are. If you know someone that is passionate about exercise and sports please share this article with him or her.