Move Your Body to Change Your Brain
May. 14 2020
We know that adding physical activity into our lives helps us to be healthier—there are reasons, after all, that it’s one of the top New Year’s Resolutions people make each year. Among other things, moving more reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes and stroke, strengthens your muscles and heart and lungs, lowers blood pressure and can even help you live longer.
But more and more research is shedding light onto other benefits of movement that you might not expect. Studies show that, regardless of your preferred way to get moving, movement is linked to a wide range of psychological benefits.
Want to be happier, more connected to friends and family, and more confident? Read on to discover how moving more can help you reap less visible—but equally impactful—health benefits.
Exercise has long been proven to be a mood booster. Physical activity, even at moderate levels, prompts the release of neurotransmitters such as endorphins, dopamine and serotonin, which are all chemicals produced by your brain and spinal cord that contribute to feelings of happiness and euphoria.
As we age, our brains change. Adults can lose up to 13% of our dopamine receptors—the parts of our reward center that registers the presence of those neurotransmitters—per decade of adulthood. And substance abuse can reduce the availability of those receptors even further.
But physical activity can prevent the decline of dopamine receptors in the brain as we age. Recent research also suggests that for some it can even increase dopamine receptor availability, helping us to be happier, longer.
Augment Your Intelligence
Those same neurotransmitters that make us happier also help us concentrate better, leading to a feeling of mental sharpness. Feeling stuck on a project at work? Step away from your desk to move—take a walk, stretch or whatever feels right for your body—and you might come back with a new idea or creative breakthrough.
Recent studies also indicate that cardiovascular exercise in particular, such as walking, running, cycling or swimming, helps our bodies create brand new brain cells through a process called neurogenesis. This process contributes to overall brain performance, as well as prevents cognitive decline and memory loss.
A growing body of research is exploring the impact movement can have on clinical depression and anxiety. Studies show that the prevalence of depression and anxiety is lower amongst those who are regularly active, and that moving more can reduce symptoms for those who do suffer from these disorders.
Additional research suggests that movement may also play a role in easing the symptoms of stress, ADHD, PSTD and trauma.
A friend, spouse or other accountabilibuddy can be instrumental in helping you stick to an exercise regimen. But did you know that being physically active alongside another person can significantly strengthen your trust and relationship with that person, too? Moving with a group of others in group exercise, yoga or dance, for example, activates the endogenous opioid system—a group of chemicals and receptors in our bodies—which increases our pain threshold and feelings of social closeness. Many classes are now available remotely too, so you can queue up the class from home.
Another study looking at older married couples also showed that exercising together was associated with higher daily marital satisfaction and more positive marital events overall.
Transform Your Self-Image
Your body is constantly communicating its position in space to your brain. Every time you move, receptors in your muscles, tendons and joints send messages that help you to maneuver through the world—and also help shape how you think about yourself. Changing or challenging the way we move through the world on a day-to-day basis can impact whether we see ourselves as strong or weak, or graceful or clumsy.
No matter your preferred way to move, the benefits are real and make for a healthier, happier life.