Physical Exercise Boosts Your Brain and Mind
The body “vs” the mind
For physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body; it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.
— John F. Kennedy
Our bodies are pretty miraculous when you give them a second thought. They are a network of tissues and organs, all designed for specific jobs that keep you alive. Each part of our body can flow, pump, and process, in the same regular mechanical fashion for 100 years or more. And for whatever reason, it still blows me away to know our bodies can heal themselves.
The brain that sits inside our skull is no real exception within the context of our body. Like other organs, it continuously interacts with the rest of our biology. This interactive process creates the all-important experience that we call our mind.
What exactly do we mean by the mind? You’d think it should be easy to define, but no. People see it and study it in their own peculiar ways. When I say ‘mind’, I use it synonymously with conscious subjective experience; basically how you think and feel. When we think about an old romantic partner, feel melancholic about the loss of a friend, consider what our lives will look like in 20 years, and recall the cannons in Tchaikovsky’s 1812 overture (or the clapping in the Friends intro music), all of these experiences play out in our mind.
Physical bodily pains such as the discomfort of a broken finger are also experienced in the mind. But we are generally good at treating these by targeting the source of the pain (the broken finger), rather than its experience (the mind). It is more sensible to bandage a finger until it recovers and the experience of pain disappears, rather than keeping the finger broken and trying to remove the pain we experience in our mind. But with many of our other everyday emotional pains and bad thinking patterns, we rarely find a single finger to bandage.
The sources of our mental problems are more abstract and less easy to pinpoint than our physical problems. Why am I more anxious about my career today compared to yesterday, even though nothing has changed? Why aren’t my creative juices flowing on this project, even though they were fine in the shower this morning? Should I remain in this long and unhappy relationship? Why do I feel so lonely? Why can’t I keep my attention where I need it right now? These are the problems that plague the mind, but we usually have no idea what to do with them. So we ignore them, leaving them standing in the background of our mind like a herd of ruminating cows, and we cross our fingers hoping they go away on their own.
Despite the added complexity of our mental pains and strains, our minds are connected to our bodily functions just as much as our heartbeats are. This means that both psychological interventions and physical interventions can boost our mental health.
The inextricable link between physical and mental function
True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body; the two are ever united.
— Wilhelm von Humboldt
Our everyday actions impact the qualities of our mind. A famous study from almost 20 years ago analyzed the brains of taxi drivers to see how their regular experience with navigating the streets of London impacted their brain structure. The hippocampus is a critical brain area when it comes to our spatial memory and navigation abilities. When we damage it, we struggle to find our way around in the world.
The researchers measured the size of the hippocampus in individual taxi drivers using a brain scanner, and compared them to the brains of closely matched non-driver control participants. They found that a specific part of the hippocampus — the posterior section — was significantly larger in the taxi drivers, and its size positively correlated with the amount of time they had spent on the job. Their regular physical travel around London, and their mental memorizing of the locations during that travel, adapted the structure of their brain.
The drivers’ brains were moving their bodies, their moving bodies were influencing their minds, and their changing minds were adjusting their brains. This didn’t happen in a step-by-step sequence; it all occurred in one big iterative and interactive loop, where each part of us is simultaneously doing its job. There is no clean cut between our brains, bodies, and minds.
How physical exercise benefits the mind
To keep the body in good health is a duty, for otherwise we shall not be able to trim the lamp of wisdom, and keep our mind strong and clear.
— Gautama Buddha
The scientific evidence consistently shows that physical exercise, especially aerobic fitness training, positively impacts our brains and minds. For school-children, regular physical activity is related to improvements in several aspects of mind including perceptual skills and IQ. It also directly benefits academic performance. Aerobic capacity is positively correlated with maths and reading performance, while body mass index shows the opposite effect. So it’s probably not a good idea to get rid of physical education and sports classes at school.
One of the major risk factors for developing Alzheimer’s disease is physical inactivity. If we don’t have a favorite sport or exercise to keep us moving regularly, we are more likely to experience declines in our cognitive ability as we age. We are still learning about the exact mechanisms and biological processes that make physical activity good for our minds. But it seems safe to say that physical exercise helps to protect us from some of the major mental problems associated with getting old.
Depression is a pervasive problem that we are paying serious and justified attention to. But it remains a tough issue to treat. A pernicious effect of the disorder is that most sufferers avoid seeking help, and those who do speak to their physicians won’t necessarily find a significant reprieve from their symptoms. As with most mental health problems, depression is a complicated issue with several biological, psychological, and social risk factors and precursors.
Recent experiments have systematically tested the possible benefits of physical exercise on depression symptoms. In one study, 317 patients in Sweden with mild to moderate depression were recruited for a 12-week intervention involving yoga, aerobics, and strength training classes. Compared to a control group who continued with the usual depression treatments from their physicians, the patients who engaged in the physical exercises showed a greater reduction in their depression scores after the treatment program. In fact, their symptom improvements were similar to those found for patients who had access to regular internet-based cognitive behavioral therapy, in which support programs were tailored to their personal mental health profiles.
In the most recent large-scale analysis of data from over 1 million Americans aged 18 and over, researchers compared signs of mental health between people who reported exercising and not exercising within the last month of their lives. After equalizing the effects of basic demographic variables, the researchers found that people who exercised suffered 43.2% fewer days of poor mental health. Consistent with previous evidence, the researchers found the greatest benefits from aerobic exercises, especially team sports and cycling.
The moral of the story so far
For any of us with the slightest concern about our mental health, a regular program of physical exercise is a good idea. It’s not likely to provide a cure-all, and it’s not the only part of the story. But the evidence on its benefits is clear. Finding friends to run around with, cycle with, and chase balls with, is a reliable way to take care of our minds.
The growing popularity of yoga classes and gym memberships is a good sign for our physical health. Concern about mental health has been lagging behind but, slowly and surely, we may be starting to treat our minds with the same respect that we treat our bodies. Mindfulness and meditation are becoming buzzwords, and general awareness around mental disorders is improving. But with this progress, we may also be losing track of what it means to be conscious. Rather than reinforcing the intuition of a valley between our bodies and minds, we need to grasp the insoluble connection between how we physically act, what we think, and how we feel.
The brain is our most complicated organ, and our mind the most complicated function, but they are biological organs and functions nonetheless. Those days at the gym, runs along the street, and competitive physical games with friends are doing more than building muscle and improving your heart efficiency. They are lifting your spirits and upgrading the part of you that recognizes how it feels to be alive.