Over the years I have written about the many benefits of physical activity. Along with good nutrition, it should be the first prescription that our doctors write out for us. But what does physical activity do for the brain?
Moving helps to reduce stress, depression and anxiety and improves learning, memory and cognition. According to neuroscientist, Shane O’Mara: “One of the great overlooked superpowers we have is that, when we get up and walk, our senses are sharpened. Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/28/its-a-superpower-how-walking-makes-us-healthier-happier-and-brainier l).
For most of us, walking is fairly manageable and easy to do. But it is actually a complex cognitive task. There are mental gymnastics going on when we simply hike into the woods, stroll along in the city, or take a walk through the park. Think of all the maneuvers the brain goes through; a sophisticated robot cannot do it. Walking also changes how we think and feel. In O’Mara’s book, In Praise of Walking, he claims that “just crossing a street is pretty miraculous” (https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/neuroscientist-walking-is-a-superpower-that-makes-us-smarter-healthier-happier.html). The bottom line, the uniqueness of humans is that we walk upright on two feet, and we are supposedly on the top of the food chain with our intelligence.
Let’s look at the following brain functions: Smarts (cognition), memory, creativity, emotions (happiness, depression, etc.) and personality.
Cognition: According to Harvard psychiatrist and author, John Ratey, exercise (like walking) makes you smarter. There are many studies, but in one Swedish study of 1.2 million boys, starting at the age of 15 and then evaluated again after military training at 18, it demonstrated that as they got fitter, their IQs, increased. This was also true for identical twins, when one increased their exercise and the other did not. And finally a study, done in Texas with 2.6 million children, showed a strong correlation between fitness levels and grades, regardless of demographics (https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/how-to-use-exercise-to-optimize-your-brain.html).
Memory: The brain systems for cognition, memory and therefore learning are all the same. It is much like a GPS system and it is called cognitive mapping. Even more interesting is that there are overlaps with movement and cognitive mapping. “Rhythms that would previously be quiet suddenly come to life, and the way our brain interacts with our body changes” (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2019/jul/28/its-a-superpower-how-walking-makes-us-healthier-happier-and-brainier).
Creativity: One type of brain frequency is called theta. Theta is a pulse or frequency that is seen all over the brain during the course of movement. In addition to general learning and memory, theta frequencies improve spatial learning, which entails design, the visual arts, drawing, painting, as well as figuring out puzzles and charts. Basically this represents our creative abilities and the ability to think abstractly.
Emotions: We know that walking and other physical activity helps counter depression and reduce stress. But how? Many studies are addressing this topic and scientists have determined that just like antidepressants do, walking and other physical activities literally increase the amount of neurotransmitters in our brains (https://www.inc.com/jessica-stillman/how-to-use-exercise-to-optimize-your-brain.html). So, walking acts like an antidepressant. Also neurogenesis takes place when we exercise, which means we build new brain cells. This is a fairly new concept; not that long ago it was thought that the number of brain cells we had was preset.
Personality: Physical activity helps to change aspects of our personality. With movement we tend to be less sluggish and we can think clearer. Physical activity helps to ward off anxiety, stress and distractions and we become more focused. As we discussed with the other brain functions that are improved with physical activity, there is a culminating effect on personality. When we function better cognitively, emotionally, and creatively, we tend to become more open-minded, less grumpy and more approachable. Our personality has the potential to change (https://www.realsimple.com/health/mind-mood/what-happens-to-brain-without-exercise).
What sort of exercise is good for the brain? What’s good for the heart is good for the brain. To help stay motivated, it’s best to choose the physical activities that you enjoy or those that make you feel good. The simplest and often most natural exercise is walking. Although considered simple, walking requires a harmonious coordination of your joints, muscles, bones and nerves, involving some 200 bones and 600 muscles. The muscles in our internal organs and blood vessels are also at work in conjunction with what we call nerve ganglia. These ganglia are sometimes referred to as “little brains.” We are also working our senses and sending constant messages to the brain about what we touch, see, smell and hear and then we have to process those messages. Although not consciously, each step takes enormous amounts of information to travel to the cerebral cortex, using sensory and motor neurons. We are processing information just to address the change in road or ground surfaces, as well as all the other instructions that the brain has to carry out to climb a mountain, cross a street or weave in and out of crowds of people (https://brainworldmagazine.com/walking-is-brain-exercise/).
One step requires lots of brain power, and each step moves you toward a super brain.
Charlotte Michos is a clinical nurse specialist who values personal-centered care and serves as a Healthcare Consultant in helping others make informed decisions. For more information, email her or call (845) 548-5980.
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