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Five profound ways physical exercise shapes your brain and mind

We’ve all heard that exer­cise is good for us—how it strength­ens our hearts and lungs, and helps us pre­vent dis­eases like dia­betes. That’s why so many of us like to make New Year’s res­o­lu­tions to move more, know­ing it will make us health­i­er and live longer.

But many peo­ple don’t know about the oth­er impor­tant ben­e­fits of exercise—how it can help us find hap­pi­ness, hope, con­nec­tion, and courage.

Around the world, peo­ple who are phys­i­cal­ly active are hap­pi­er and more sat­is­fied with their lives. They have a stronger sense of pur­pose and expe­ri­ence more grat­i­tude, love, and hope. They feel more con­nect­ed to their com­mu­ni­ties, and are less like­ly to suf­fer from lone­li­ness or become depressed.

These ben­e­fits are seen through­out the lifes­pan, includ­ing among those liv­ing with seri­ous men­tal and phys­i­cal health chal­lenges. That’s true whether their pre­ferred activ­i­ty is walk­ing, run­ning, swim­ming, danc­ing, bik­ing, play­ing sports, lift­ing weights, or prac­tic­ing yoga.

Why is move­ment linked to such a wide range of psy­cho­log­i­cal ben­e­fits? One rea­son is its pow­er­ful and pro­found effects on the brain. Here are five ways that being active is good for your brain—and how you can har­ness these ben­e­fits your­self.

1. Physical accomplishments change how you think about yourself

Every time you move your body, sen­so­ry recep­tors in your mus­cles, ten­dons, and joints send infor­ma­tion to your brain about what is hap­pen­ing. This is why if you close your eyes and raise one arm, you can feel the shift in posi­tion and know where your arm is in space. You don’t have to watch what’s hap­pen­ing; you can sense your­self.

The abil­i­ty to per­ceive your body’s move­ments is called pro­pri­o­cep­tion, and is some­times referred to as the “sixth sense.” It helps us move through space with ease and skill and plays a sur­pris­ing­ly impor­tant role in self-concept—how you think about who you are and how you imag­ine oth­ers see you.

When you par­tic­i­pate in any phys­i­cal activ­i­ty, your moment-to-moment sense of self is shaped by the qual­i­ties of your move­ment. If you move with grace, your brain per­ceives the elon­ga­tion of your limbs and the flu­id­i­ty of your steps, and real­izes, “I am grace­ful.” When you move with pow­er, your brain encodes the explo­sive con­trac­tion of mus­cles, sens­es the speed of the action, and under­stands, “I am pow­er­ful.” If there is a voice in your head say­ing, “You’re too old, too awk­ward, too big, too bro­ken, too weak,” sen­sa­tions from move­ment can pro­vide a com­pelling coun­ter­ar­gu­ment.

Phys­i­cal accom­plish­ments change how you think about your­self and what you are capa­ble of, and the effect should not be under­es­ti­mat­ed. One woman I spoke with shared a sto­ry about when she was in her ear­ly 20s and found her­self severe­ly depressed, with a plan to take her own life. The day she intend­ed to go through with it, she went to the gym for one last work­out. She dead­lift­ed 185 pounds, a per­son­al best. When she put the bar down, she real­ized that she didn’t want to die. Instead, she remem­bers, “I want­ed to see how strong I could become.” Five years lat­er, she can now dead­lift 300 pounds.

2. Exercise makes you more resilient

Courage is anoth­er side effect of phys­i­cal activ­i­ty on the brain. At the very same time that a new exer­cise habit is enhanc­ing the reward sys­tem, it also increas­es neur­al con­nec­tions among areas of the brain that calm anx­i­ety. Reg­u­lar phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can also mod­i­fy the default state of the ner­vous sys­tem so that it becomes more bal­anced and less prone to fight, flight, or fright.

The lat­est research even sug­gests that lactate—the meta­bol­ic by-prod­uct of exer­cise that is com­mon­ly, but erro­neous­ly, blamed for mus­cle soreness—has pos­i­tive effects on men­tal health. After lac­tate is released by mus­cles, it trav­els through the blood­stream to the brain, where it alters your neu­ro­chem­istry in a way that can reduce anx­i­ety and pro­tect against depres­sion.

Some­times, the move­ment itself allows us to expe­ri­ence our­selves as brave, as the lan­guage we use to describe courage relies on metaphors of the body. We over­come obsta­cles, break through bar­ri­ers, and walk through fire. We car­ry bur­dens, reach out for help, and lift one anoth­er up. This is how we as humans talk about brav­ery and resilience.

When we are faced with adver­si­ty or doubt­ing our own strength, it can help to feel these actions in our bod­ies. The mind instinc­tive­ly makes sense out of phys­i­cal actions. Some­times we need to climb an actu­al hill, pull our­selves up, or work togeth­er to shoul­der a heavy load to know that these traits are a part of us.

3. Exercise can make your brain more sensitive to joy

When you exer­cise, you pro­vide a low-dose jolt to the brain’s reward centers—the sys­tem of the brain that helps you antic­i­pate plea­sure, feel moti­vat­ed, and main­tain hope. Over time, reg­u­lar exer­cise remod­els the reward sys­tem, lead­ing to high­er cir­cu­lat­ing lev­els of dopamine and more avail­able dopamine recep­tors. In this way, exer­cise can both relieve depres­sion and expand your capac­i­ty for joy.

These changes can also repair the neu­ro­log­i­cal hav­oc wreaked by sub­stance abuse. Sub­stance abuse low­ers the lev­el of dopamine in your brain and reduces the avail­abil­i­ty of dopamine recep­tors in the reward sys­tem. As result, peo­ple strug­gling with addic­tion can feel unmo­ti­vat­ed, depressed, anti­so­cial, and unable to enjoy ordi­nary plea­sures. Exer­cise can reverse this.

In one ran­dom­ized tri­al, adults in treat­ment for metham­phet­a­mine abuse par­tic­i­pat­ed in an hour of walk­ing, jog­ging, and strength train­ing three times a week. After eight weeks, their brains showed an increase in dopamine recep­tor avail­abil­i­ty in the reward sys­tem.

Jump-start­ing the brain’s reward sys­tem ben­e­fits not just those who strug­gle with depres­sion or addic­tion. Our brains change as we age, and adults lose up to 13 per­cent of the dopamine recep­tors in the reward sys­tem with each pass­ing decade. This loss leads to less enjoy­ment of every­day plea­sures, but phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can pre­vent the decline. Com­pared to their inac­tive peers, active old­er adults have reward sys­tems that more close­ly resem­ble those of indi­vid­u­als who are decades younger.

4. The exercise “high” primes you to connect with others

Although typ­i­cal­ly described as a runner’s high, an exer­cise-induced mood boost is not exclu­sive to run­ning. A sim­i­lar bliss can be found in any sus­tained phys­i­cal activ­i­ty.

Sci­en­tists have long spec­u­lat­ed that endor­phins are behind the high, but research shows the high is linked to anoth­er class of brain chem­i­cals: endo­cannabi­noids (the same chem­i­cals mim­ic­ked by cannabis)—what neu­ro­sci­en­tists describe as “don’t wor­ry, be hap­py” chem­i­cals.

Areas of the brain that reg­u­late the stress response, includ­ing the amyg­dala and pre­frontal cor­tex, are rich in recep­tors for endo­cannabi­noids. When endo­cannabi­noid mol­e­cules lock into these recep­tors, they reduce anx­i­ety and induce a state of con­tent­ment. Endo­cannabi­noids also increase dopamine in the brain’s reward sys­tem, which fur­ther fuels feel­ings of opti­mism.

This exer­cise high also primes us to con­nect with oth­ers, by increas­ing the plea­sure we derive from being around oth­er peo­ple, which can strength­en rela­tion­ships. Many peo­ple use exer­cise as an oppor­tu­ni­ty to con­nect with friends or loved ones. Among mar­ried cou­ples, when spous­es exer­cise togeth­er, both part­ners report more close­ness lat­er that day, includ­ing feel­ing loved and sup­port­ed.

Anoth­er study found that on days when peo­ple exer­cise, they report more pos­i­tive inter­ac­tions with friends and fam­i­ly. As one run­ner said to me, “My fam­i­ly will some­times send me out run­ning, as they know that I will come back a much bet­ter per­son.”

5. Moving with others builds trust and belonging

In 1912, French soci­ol­o­gist E?mile Durkheim coined the term col­lec­tive effer­ves­cence to describe the euphor­ic self-tran­scen­dence indi­vid­u­als feel when they move togeth­er in rit­u­al, prayer, or work. Mov­ing with others—for exam­ple, in group exer­cise, yoga, or dance classes—is one of the most pow­er­ful ways to expe­ri­ence joy.

Psy­chol­o­gists believe the key to pro­duc­ing col­lec­tive joy is synchrony—moving in the same way, and at the same time, as others—because it trig­gers a release of endor­phins. This is why dancers and row­ers who move in synch show an increase in pain tol­er­ance.

But endor­phins don’t just make us feel good; they help us bond, too. Peo­ple shar­ing an endor­phin rush through a col­lec­tive activ­i­ty like, trust, and feel clos­er to one anoth­er after­ward. It’s a pow­er­ful neu­ro­bi­o­log­i­cal mech­a­nism for form­ing friend­ships, even with peo­ple we don’t know.

Group exer­cise has man­aged to cap­i­tal­ize on the social ben­e­fits of syn­chro­nized move­ment. For exam­ple, the more you get your heart rate up, the clos­er you feel to the peo­ple you move in uni­son with, and adding music enhances the effect. Breath­ing in uni­son can also ampli­fy the feel­ing of col­lec­tive joy, as may hap­pen in a yoga class.

We were born with brains able to craft a sense of con­nec­tion to oth­ers that is as vis­cer­al as the feed­back com­ing from our own heart, lungs, and mus­cles. That is an aston­ish­ing thing! We humans can go about most of our lives, sens­ing and feel­ing our­selves as sep­a­rate, but through one small action—coming togeth­er in movement—we dis­solve the bound­aries that divide us.

Clear­ly, we were born to move, and the effects of exer­cise on our psy­cho­log­i­cal and social well-being are many. So, why not start the new year right and add more move­ment to your life? No doubt you’ll feel bet­ter, be hap­pi­er, and have bet­ter social rela­tion­ships because of it.

– This essay is adapt­ed from The Joy of Move­ment: How Exer­cise Helps Us Find Hap­pi­ness, Hope, Con­nec­tion, and Courage, by Kel­ly McGo­ni­gal, Ph.D. Dr. McGo­ni­gal’s lat­est book explores why phys­i­cal exer­cise is a pow­er­ful anti­dote to the mod­ern epi­demics of depres­sion, anx­i­ety, and lone­li­ness. Based at UC-Berke­ley, the Greater Good Sci­ence Cen­ter high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism.

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness

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As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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