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As science has taught us more about the network of human systems, we’re beginning understand that no two function completely separately from each other. Several studies highlight a connection between exercise and memory, showing that physical and mental health are important to treat in tandem for a healthy life.
In this piece, we’ll be looking at some of the links that exist between the body and the brain to explain how a holistic approach to wellness can hold the key to living a healthy, fulfilling life.
Does a Healthy Lifestyle Help Your Brain?
Many people think of physical health and brain function as entirely different, but this isn’t true. In fact, there’s a growing body of research that’s increasingly providing evidence to the contrary.
A Harvard Health article explains that various studies have found that people who get more exercise every day enjoy an improvement in memory and overall cognitive function. This can lead to a longer, happier life, especially in older people. Something as simple as walking for five to 10 minutes extra per day can extend memory, increase concentration and help stave off the loss of cognitive function that tends to come naturally with age.
This makes sense. After all, exercise isn’t the only physically beneficial lifestyle that supports brain health. Eating a healthy diet provides your body and mind with nutrients they need to stay strong over time. But newfound links between exercise and memory provides an additional reason to consider getting active.
What Kinds of Changes Occur When You Stay Active?
Finding out that exercise improves memory and learning may be new information, but there’s plenty of reasons why exercise is good for brain health and mental wellness. Here’s how.
How Does Exercise Affect Memory and Cognition?
Scientists don’t yet understand the full set of reasons why even a marginal increase in daily activity can increase brain function and capacity. With this in mind, there are a few reasons why it’s thought these benefits occur.
First, studies have found a connection between exercise and an increase in growth factors — chemicals that support the health and survival of new brain cells. This means that when you exercise more often, you’re actually stimulating brain growth.
Second, aerobic exercise increases heart rate, which allows more blood to reach every part of the body, including the brain. More blood flow improves brain functions like memory, critical thinking skills and basic problem-solving.
How Does Exercise Affect Mental Health?
It’s been known for a long time that, generally, people who are able to get active more often enjoy better mental wellness, but why is this? As it turns out, the connection between brain function, memory and exercise may play a role here as well.
The Link Between Brain Function and Mental Health
It’s thought that many mental health issues are due to a change in the balance of brain chemicals. This raises a question: If exercise can help keep the brain healthier, does it also hold the key to maintaining mental wellness?
The answer is yes. One survey carried out by the AARP asked people to assess their cognitive ability and mental well-being. While there was no way for this particular study to draw a causal connection in either direction, the results showed that the people who scored higher in the cognitive assessment also reported better mental health.
Here are some benefits that exercise and living an overall healthy lifestyle can provide to your mental well-being:
You’re able to rationalize and build coping strategies
People with better cognitive function are often more receptive to the skills used in mental health rehab. These include having a better perspective about their situation, building coping skills and understanding what works in helping them find improvement, either on their own or from treatment.
Your self-esteem improves
Exercise helps us feel better about ourselves. Whether it’s for weight loss or a way to achieve incremental performance goals, the results of working out are likely to make you feel better about yourself. And, higher self-esteem and a healthy perception of one’s own image is a key indicator of overall mental well-being.
You feel better
It seems overly simple, but everything you do produces sensations and feelings in your brain. Exercise often produces feelings of accomplishment, which triggers your brain’s reward system and makes you feel better.
You have more energy
If you’re tired, you may not want to expend the energy needed for vigorous exercise, but an increase in heart rate and blood flow can produce a sustainable burst of energy. This means that with an increase in exercise, you’ll find the motivation needed to get other things accomplished as well, improving your satisfaction and the fulfillment you get from your days.
These factors are part of the reason exercise and caring for basic physical needs are widely recommended to people experiencing depression and anxiety. It’s because of the link between physical and mental health — exercise and memory.
Tips for Making Positive Changes in Your Own Life
We’ve explored the connections between exercise and memory and the explanatory factors that tie mental and physical wellness together. So how can you use these to your advantage?
Any time you’re making a change in your daily routine, even one that will almost certainly bring considerable benefits to your health, it’s important to take small steps. If you completely transform your lifestyle, it may be so unfamiliar that it takes longer to experience benefits. It also may not be sustainable. When you leave the routine you’re comfortable with, it’s important to make incremental changes to be sure you can make them stick, even as other parts of your life change.
If you’re making a commitment to exercise more, this logic applies. Start with a 10- to 20-minute walk or jog and build up from there. Or, take a class you know is designed for people of a similar experience level so you know what you’re getting into. With exercise, it’s easy to become discouraged when you feel limited by pain, lack of endurance or weakness.
It’s important to remember that even the best athletes and strongest lifters didn’t get that way in a single day. Build up gradually and you’ll make progress towards a stronger body and mind.