How Exercise Helps Your Brain & Mood
While collaborating on This is Your Brain on Joy, I had the most fun doing research on the subject of the brain and happiness. In the process, I stumbled over some fabulous reads that go into a little more detail about some of the joy-boosters we recommend in our book.
One motivating volume that captured my attention is called, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. The author, John J. Ratey, MD writes about how exercise helps each of the following issues: Learning Problems; Stress; Anxiety; Depression; Attention Deficit Disorder; Addictions; Hormonal Changes (like PMS and menopause) and Aging. If you want to feel great about how your exercise routine is helping your brain and mood – this is a book to pick up and savor.
My daughter-in-law, Amy, has two little boys under age 3 (have I mentioned how adorable they are?) and she continues to astound me with both her level of energy and her level of happiness. As soon as she had each of her babies, she began walking, and before long she was jogging, and now that her baby is five months old, she’s about to run her first race (pushing a double stroller!) and also taking Spin Classes. (Am I the only mom on the planet who thought these were classes where you spun around in circles? I could not imagine how anybody could do this for an hour and not be crazy dizzy. Apparently you ride a stationary bike, not turn into a whirling dervish.) She often talks about how much she enjoys her life, and any mom knows that raising two little ones – however worthwhile – is not easy. (Today, Amy walked in the kitchen to find that her 2 ½ year old had “decorated” the cabinets with wet sticky oatmeal. And this before 9:00 a.m. My grandson is so creative. )
In the introduction to Spark, Dr. Ratey writes: “It was already known that exercise increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine – important neurotransmitters that traffic in thoughts and emotions.”
He goes on to say that most of us have, by now, heard about serotonin and its mood-boosting qualities; however, not even most psychiatrists realize this bit of news: High levels of stress (and Lord knows this has been a stressful year for many of us) “erodes the connections between the billions of nerve cells in the brain.” Chronic, even low-grade depression can actually shrink certain sections of the brain. (Another reason not to let even mild depression go untreated!)
But here’s the great news: “Exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process
I am one of those women who would like to be in shape, would love to lose 20 pounds, but who apparently hasn’t wanted this badly enough to get to the gym or on the treadmill as often as I should. But I will tell you what motivates me: Feeling joyful. Preferably during, or shortly after, I do something. I’m a glutton for immediate reward.
So when I read that exercise gives an immediate mood boost (and by the way, walking in the sunshine for 20 minutes helps even more) --- I dusted off my tennis shoes and mounted my treadmill. Just thirty minutes of walking does amazing things for my mood and my clarity of thought. If I happen to lose a few pounds in the process, all the better! (Although I usually walk while watching the Food Network Channel, so who knows about the ultimate weight loss?) For now, I must confess, I am mostly walking for the natural high. In fact, I may put a sign on my treadmill that says, “Will Walk for Dopamine.”
I hope this encourages you to get out in the sunshine this spring and plant some flowers, or walk around the block, or mow the lawn with gusto. Before long you may be joining my daughter-in-law, Amy – and run a race for charity, or spin your way to a happier day!