Exercise Your Way to Success
Published: Tuesday, October 9, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, October 9, 2012 17:10
You can build muscle in the weight room and get lean on the track; that’s pretty well understood by most active people. What’s not as obvious about exercise, though, is its positive impact on the brain. Memory, cognitive function, and even brain size can all increase with regular exercise.
“Exercise gets the neurotransmitters in your brain going, and that improves memory and concentration,” says Sally Bratton, director of the Ohlone College Student Health Center in Fremont, California. “When you’re sedentary, you lose concentration. So take breaks from your studies and move around—go outside or run in place by your desk. Whatever you do, get your muscles moving to get your brain moving.”
The fact that calf extensions or bicep curls can help build up your brain’s power may not be widely known, but the fundamentals are fairly simple, and here’s why:
The brain’s requirement for consistent blood supply is probably more demanding than that of any other organ in the body. Blood carries oxygen, and your noggin needs a consistent flow in order to function optimally.
Daniel E., a 32-year-old student at Ohlone College, takes a boot camp course twice a week for two hours, and he usually studies immediately after working out. “I’m studying nursing so my brain has to be at 110 percent,” he says. “The exercise puts my brain in super-drive mode. It relieves stress, gives me energy, and helps me focus.”
How Does It Work?
Considering your brain’s need for blood and the oxygen it carries, it makes sense that cardiovascular efficiency and elevated heart rate—associated with exercise—will help the brain stay nourished. In labs all around the world, discoveries are being made about the complex relationship between exercise and brain function.
For example, scientists at the University of Illinois have found that moderate exercise, performed three days a week, does two things:
1.Lessens the normal breakdown of brain matter; and
2.Reverses the natural aging process by increasing the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain primarily associated with memory.
Their research demonstrates a positive correlation between exercise, brain size, and memory. And wouldn’t you like your ability to remember things to be as strong as possible?
Thinking and Moving
Exercise increases the amount of signaling that occurs between the brain and muscles and, in turn, hones the connection between the two. This refines motor coordination.
Research published this year in the Journal of Health Psychology points out that regular cycling and stretching exercises contribute to enhancements in motor skill. Those who were physically active on a regular basis had better motor coordination compared with people with a sedentary lifestyle.
While this isn’t a particularly novel idea, the researchers also measured participants’ performance on auditory and other learning tests. Overall, those who exercised regularly outperformed the sedentary group in multiple tests that measured their ability to process information.
Your Body is a Stress-Management Tool
In addition to all of the indications that exercise increases your capacity to learn and remember, physical activity is also one of the most effective ways to manage stress.
Another study, published this year in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, found that exercise stimulates the release of a chemical in the body called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is beneficial to brain function in several ways: it supports neuron growth and survival, the capacity to learn, and memory function.
Interestingly, BDNF has also been shown to positively affect metabolic function, by suppressing appetite and increasing glucose uptake, or our body’s ability to absorb and utilize sugars. This is helpful in controlling type 2 diabetes, obesity, and similar conditions.
But even if you don’t have one of these, keeping blood-sugar levels at a consistent level is important for maintaining energy, concentration, and overall health, as well as stabilizing your emotions. All of these come in quite handy when you’re studying, balancing multiple priorities, and coping with stress. So overall, BDNF is a good thing, and exercise leads to increased levels of it in the body.
You may be thinking that this is further motivation to get fit, but that it’s also just another item on a long list of things for which you wish you had time. Incorporating physical activity into your schedule doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Students everywhere are finding ways to combine creativity and motivation in order to fit fitness into a crazy schedule.
Get Your Brain and Body Moving
Bratton says that a lot of her older students are balancing work, family, and school, so it can be difficult to add exercise to the mix. But with many gyms open late, Bratton says that students can “squeeze in exercise at different hours.”
Rather than pressuring yourself to be active, however, find ways to integrate exercise into your daily routine. Make it fun, challenging in a rewarding way, and designed around your needs. If spending time with friends is necessary to recharge your batteries, grab some buddies and take a walk, play a friendly game of basketball, or go salsa dancing. If taking time to be alone is comforting, put on your headphones and head to the weight room or a yoga class, take a solo run, or do stretches and strengthening exercises at home. You can also add activity by doing things like parking farther from buildings, walking instead of taking buses or campus shuttles, and using stairs.
A George Fox University student, Charles A. has some encouraging advice about setting realistic goals. He manages his fitness in short, 10- to 20-minute workouts once or twice a day, and says it helps to “charge his mind” and boost his overall productivity (as well as his physique).
If you set the goal of being a bodybuilder or marathon runner, you’ll probably have to make big sacrifices in order to make that your top priority, and this isn’t realistic for the average student. Find the times, activities, and locations that feel natural and easy to fit into your schedule.
Regardless of how you get your exercise, you owe it to yourself to make it happen. The benefits of staying active and involved with physical fitness go beyond a beach body and a healthy heart. Your brain depends on it. Put that into perspective and you can see just how important regular exercise is to succeeding in school and leading a long, productive life.
Students can access the Parkland College Student Health 101 magazine online at http://readsh101.com/parkland.html. Copyright 2012 Student Health 101