Proper exercise provides us with many benefits. The obvious ones are the physical change we observe in our body structure as our muscles, bones and joints become stronger.
But there are other, more subtle, yet just as powerful benefits we receive when exercising properly and that is the boost we feel emotionally and mentally when we're done.
This "high feeling" is the reason so many people hit the gym either first thing in the morning (to start their day in an empowered way) or right after a stressful day at work (to clear the foggy, sometimes bordering on negative, debris that is often left behind in the mind).
In other words, challenging exercise rejuvenates and invigorates us both physically and mentally. It is empowered to leave us refreshed with a totally transformed attitude along with all the changes we enjoy in our physical stature.
When we don a pair of sneakers and get active, the sluggish and possibly negative attitude we left work with is suddenly transformed as our mental health and cognitive functions – memory, perceptions, attention, learning and language skills - all enjoy radical improvement.
So, what's going on in the background that causes these positive results? Exercise increases heart rate, pumps more vital oxygen to the brain and boosts the release of a variety of hormones that in turn, cause a marked change in our brain's biochemistry.
There are about 100 billion brain cells called neurons that are responsible for transmitting chemical signals between one another. These chemical signals or neurotransmitters/neurochemicals are responsible for how we think, feel and behave.
Basically, they interpret our view of the world.
There are as many as 100 neurotransmitters at work in our brains (possibly even more!) carrying on a variety of functions.
Dopamine, endorphins, serotonin and oxytocin are just four of the neurotransmitters that play major roles in that "feel-good," happiness attitude we enjoy.
Endorphins work because their job is to produce pleasure by blocking pain, while serotonin is the chemical empowered to produce pleasure on its own. In fact, individuals that lack brain serotonin are often prescribed anti-depressant medications that work to boost serotonin levels, lifting them out of their depressive mood.
Depression is not to be taken lightly. It is a serious issue and leading cause of disability that affects about 300 million people worldwide.
But pharmaceuticals are only one way to boost serotonin levels. There are other, healthier, more natural ways to boost serotonin or endorphin levels and physical activity has proven to be a major player.
Because of the "runner's high" that many experience, aerobic activity was the "go to" for many years to relieve symptoms of anxiety and depression but more recent studies indicate that strength training, long known for its ability to build and tone our muscles and strengthen bones, is also a major player in the fight against depression.
Strength training (includes body-weight workouts and resistance band exercises along with free-weight workouts and exercise machines) releases a plethora of neurotransmitters, including endorphins, empowered to clear brain fog, eliminate depression and lift our mood.
Whether its stress from work related issues or personal problems, the surge of endorphins we enjoy when we challenge ourselves with strength training can be likened to a euphoric runner's high.
It is powerful training, that not only strengthens our physical muscles, but trains, strengthens and toughens our mental muscle as well.
Our clarity and mental focus experience a real boost that allows us to zone in and focus on whatever task is at hand.
This, in turn, significantly increases our level of productivity and the feeling of accomplishment that accompanies it. We enjoy higher levels of success in all
aspects of life and our self-esteem and self-confidence soar.
Regular exercise is our best antidepressant. It reduces inflammation and oxidative stress (both contributors to depression), while increasing blood flow to the brain, neuronal plasticity and factors such as BDNF levels (brain derived neurotrophic factor) and telomere length (vitally important if you want to live a long healthy life.).
BDNF's major role is promoting the survivability of brain neurons. This keeps our neurotransmitters messaging system healthy and humming nicely. Our memory, mood and ability to learn all benefit. And, guess what? Exercise is the best way to trigger the production of this valuable protein, BDNF.
Brain health matters no matter what age we are. It is one of the most important organs in our body and controls every aspect of our lives. So, on days you struggle with motivation to get to the gym or perform your favourite work-out, remember, it's not only your body you are working on, but your brain that benefits as well.
A healthy brain is essential for making healthy life choices. Healthy life choices are the main ingredient to healthy longevity – the gift of living a long and full life. The opposite is mental decline and eventual disability.
Don't wait till mental decline rears its ugly head to act. Brain health is just as crucial as heart health and the choices we make daily are either increasing or decreasing our brain health.
What are you choosing?
• Carolyn Hansen is co-owner of Anytime Fitness.