Exercise for body and mind:
“ If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can,
it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.” (Tarnopolsky, 2016, cited in Oaklander, 2016)
Health professionals are increasingly recommending, based on scientific research, that we should all exercise because it is good to restore and maintain our health. Regular exercise has significant benefits for our body and mind: it lowers the risk of developing diseases such as heart problems, diabetes and high blood pressure. It also helps to build and strengthen bones and muscles, as well as strengthens our immune system. Physical activity increases our aerobic capacity strengthening our lungs and helping to keep our bodies well oxygenated. In addition, it helps to boost our metabolism and maintain a stable weight (Ratey &Hagerman, 2010).
What counts as exercise?
We tend to assume that it refers to long and strenuous workouts in the gym. In fact, any activity that requires movement and that accelerates our heart rate moderately is beneficial. This can be going for a walk or jogging, as well as stretching and balancing exercises to increase our flexibility, posture and balance. The general recommendation is about 30 minutes a day, five times a week of moderate level of exercise including aerobic and muscle strengthening activities (White & Wojcicki, 2010).
To benefit from exercising it is important to have a regular routine and persevere with our efforts. It is recommended not to spend too much time sitting as our body needs to be active to continue to function optimally throughout our lives, and to be careful not to strain the body with too much exercise for long periods as it can be detrimental to our health (Hillman, et al, 2008).
How does exercise benefit our body and mind?
Aerobic exercises increase our lung capacity, and work harder to pump blood carrying oxygen and nutrients to reach our muscles providing the energy they need to function optimally. What matters is that the movement needs to increase our heart and breathing rate, and when we increase the pace of physical activity it stimulates the nervous system to prepare the body for action.
Strength exercises, using weights to provide resistance so our muscles need to work harder, help to strengthen bones to prevent falls and fractures in the future. In addition, balance, flexibility and coordination exercises increase our body’s agility, flexibility and balance. Exercise helps us to keep alert, increases energy and improves sleep helping to reduce fatigue and as result we feel better, stronger and more confident (Ratey & Hagerman, 2010).
Exercise helps to increase our body’s capacity to support our endocrine system, keeping insulin stable helping to reduce the risk of Type II diabetes. It lowers blood pressure helping to prevent heart diseases, and it has the potential to prevent or delay neurodegenerative diseases. In addition, it strengthens our immune system supporting our long-term health.
We can notice the benefits of exercising after a period of regular activity that includes repeated exercises so that the body can adapt to the increasing demand building strength and resilience. The regular effort increases our fitness level: as the lungs are able to process more oxygen our body is increasingly more able to cope with challenges.
How does exercise help to manage stress?
The body’s stress response is triggered when our brain (amygdala) detects danger and our body’s resources are not sufficient to manage the demands of the situation. Prolonged periods of stress affects us negatively as it suppresses the immune system making us vulnerable to illnesses, increases feelings of tiredness as well as lowering our mood and reducing our ability to cope with challenges (Jackson, 2013).
We are organisms designed to move so regular exercise supports the brain’s ability to adapt and manage challenges more effectively. Exercise helps to restore energy as it increases the efficiency of our body’s ability to metabolises glucose to provide energy to respond to the challenge. The movement relaxes our muscles and builds our strength. It supports our physical health and stamina and as it strengthens our body it increases our capacity to tolerate and regulate the body reducing symptoms of stress (Medina, 2008).
Exercise improves and regulates mood, our breathing and reduces muscle tension. When feeling tense these symptoms can interact in a feedback loop between the body and the brain, it regulates the signals in the brainstem enabling the activation of the body’s calm response. In order to manage uncomfortable feelings when stressed you can interpret these as the body’s reaction to increase energy level to manage a challenge. When you notice that your heart rate and your breathing are a bit faster remind yourself that as your body needs more energy it needs to access energy quickly, breathing is faster to take in more oxygen and the heart needs to pump faster too to pump blood around your body to take the energy to the muscles. By reframing the interpretation of our body’s reactions we can reduce the tension and restore our balance, to cope with the situation. By doing deep breathing exercises you can have a sense of control as the tension in your body eases. You can also do some mindfulness exercises.
How does exercise help us to learn better?
Exercise is the single most powerful tool we have to optimise our brain function (Ratey, 2008). Exercise supports and strengthens our cardiovascular system and is good for the heart is good for the mind. It clears the mind as the brain receives more blood bringing nutrients and stimulating the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) essential for the production of new neurones (Hopkins, et al. 2012). This process is called neurogenesis: the creation of new neutrons in the hippocampus, a key area in the brain for learning, memory and mood regulation (Kodall, M. Et al, 2016).
Exercise enhances our executive functions. By being physically active we are better able to pay attention and increase concentration, our mental processing speed is improved, it improves our ability to plan and it can protect our brains by helping to reduce or delay the risk of developing neurological diseases (White & Wojcicki, 2016).
When we are more active the brain releases endorphins, strengthening connections between neurons influencing our ability to concentrate, to evaluate information and make decisions. The activity also strengthens the hippocampus – the area of the brain that stores memories (Medina, 2008).
Exercise supports maintaining optimal physical and mental health. In addition, good nutrition contributes to supporting a healthy microbiota in our gut, and strengthening the immune system. A diet that contains mainly processed foods such as cakes, burgers,, fries, and sugary drinks leads to a gut with low biodiversity in the microbiota which can lead to experiencing tiredness, low mood and lack of motivation. Health professionals recommend a Mediterranean diet that includes fruits, vegetables, nuts, whole grains, olive oil, protein such as fish and lean meats and dairy products in moderation. Research indicates that there is a link between the gut microbiota and the brain having the potential to affect our cognitive functioning and our sense of wellbeing (Sonnenburg, J & Sonnenburg, E, 2015).
Therefore, to maintain our energy level, strengthen our cognitive abilities, and maintain a healthy body and mind it is essential to exercise regularly, have a healthy diet and to have social and cognitive stimulation to develop and maintain our strengths to feel well and be able to study effectively (Hillman, et al. (2008).
So at any time, and in particular during exams, take a break and go for a walk, the movement and fresh air will help to clear your head and restore your energy. In addition, being in nature will lift your mood and help to release tension. When you return to your studies you will be better able to focus and get on with your revision.
Hillman, C.H. et al (2008) “Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects of brain and cognition”. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, Volume 9. pp.58-65.
Hopkins,, M.E. et al. (2012) “Differential effects of acute and regular physical exercise on cognition and affect.” Neuroscience, Volume 215, July, pp 59-68.
Jackson, E. (2013) “Stress relief: the role of exercise in stress management.” Health and Fitness Journal. American College of Sports Medicine. May/June 2013, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp14-19.
Kodall,, M. Et al. (2016) “Voluntary running exercise – mediated enhance neurogenesis does not obliterate retrograde spatial memory.” Journal of Neuroscience, August, 36 (31). pp. 8112-8122.
Medina, J. (2008) Brain Rules: 12 Principles for surviving and thriving at work, home and school. Seattle: Pear Press.
Oaklander, M. (2016) “The new science of exercise“, Time Health, 12 September
Ratey, J. & Hagerman, E. (2010) Spark. How exercise will improve the performance of your brain. London: Quercus.
Sonnenburg,, J. & Sonneburgh, E. (2015) Gut Reactions. How Health insides can improve your weight, mood and well-being. London: Penguin Random House.
White, S.M, & Wojcicki, T.R. (2010) “Staying mentally sharp through physical activity.” American College of Sports Medicine. September, p.4-5