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But sometimes, despite this laundry list of benefits, I find it difficult to muster up the motivation to engage in overt exercise activities. There are so many hours in the day, and just under a million other things I could be doing instead that would feel more productive or that I would actually enjoy. If there is anyone out there who thinks and feels the same way, this post is directed at you. In fact, only 26% of people in the United States actually meet the recommended weekly exercise dose, so this is directed at most of you.
In 2008, Hillman, Erickson, and Kramer published a review of what we know about the effects of exercise on the brain. While they reviewed the results of many findings, I will limit my explanation to 3 findings that are particularly motivating for me. First and foremost, exercise creates new brain cells. If you have two cages of rodents, one cage with a running wheel, and one cage without, the rodents in the cage with the running wheel will run on it and create new neurons. Throughout your life, you are creating and losing neurons, with an imbalance toward creating in the first half of life and an imbalance toward losing in the second half. However, exercise promotes the creation of new neurons, thus allowing for more learning early in life, and less deterioration in later life. Second, exercise makes daily tasks less difficult. If you have older adults (ages 60-85) participate in aerobic training multiple times per week over several months, they will process information more quickly, have better spatial reasoning, and have much better executive functioning than people who did not participate in the exercise program. Executive functioning skills most robustly improved compared with the control group as a result of exercise, which include complex thinking such as planning, problem solving, holding multiple pieces of information in memory, and switching between tasks. These results are actually so convincing that researchers are looking into whether exercise interventions can prevent or even reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease. Stay tuned for more on that in the future. Finally, exercise makes you smarter. These effects can even be intergenerational. For example, mothers who exercise during their pregnancy have offspring with more brain cells in the parts of their brain responsible for learning and memory (hippocampus & dentate gyrus). As children continue to develop, kids who engage in more physical activity have higher IQs, better achievement scores in both verbal and math assessments, and have better memories.
So there you have it, even if it’s silly and feels like a sweaty, waste of time and money, exercising with regularity will put you in a better mood, help you think more clearly while you work, and will continue to promote your ability to learn (whatever you want) throughout your life. When you put it in perspective like that, 30 minutes every couple of days isn’t so bad.
Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature reviews neuroscience,9(1), 58-65.