How does Exercise Improve Mental Health?
Exercising to achieve a healthy brain!
"Ashes to ashes
Dust to dust
Oil those brains
Before they rust."
Anonymous (from A. Nonny Mouse Writes Again! by J. Prelutsky, 1993)
It's a well known fact that even a little exercise is benefical for health. We know for instance that exercise helps us to keep to a desired weight and our bodies in good shape. But what about the most important part of the body - our brain? Initially exercise tones up the body in general, making it fitter and healthier. By extension this will also lead to benefits for the brain. We'll have a look at how this is achieved and why it can help to improve mental health.
Brain circulation and exercise
Weighing only approximately three pounds, the brain is a complex organ made up of different parts. Each part has a unique function, but they also work in harmony with each other. The brain is protected firstly by the skin on our scalp and then the skull. Underneath there are three shields of membrane called the meninges. The brain is further protected and given support by cerebrospinal fluid that circulates around it. This fluid also plays a major part in allowing waste matter to be carried over the blood-brain barrier, to be excreted.
The brain, as with any other organ in the body, needs to have a blood supply in order to work properly. During exercise, our heart beat increases, this also improves the circulation through the brain. The blood delivers essential nutrients, oxygen and fuel to the brain. In addition it removes waste products for excretion. Therefore any kind of exercise that helps to keep the circulation in good health also has positive positive effect on the brain.
Research carried out by Duke University, NC, USA has found that exercise also has an anti-depressant affect on the brain. Further research demonstrated that exercise improved the mental health and alertness in elderly people and could also have a significant effect on dementia.
So how does exercise improve how you feel?
One of the first theories to come forward a few years ago was that endorphins are triggered in large numbers when we exercise.
What are endorphins?
These are very small protein molecules produced by the nervous system and other parts of the body. One important function of endorphins is that they work hand in hand with sedative receptors in your nervous system to create natural pain relief. Endorphins also give a 'high' or euphoric feeling - this is one of the main reasons that people take part in dangerous sports - thousands of endorphins are released causing euphoria. Endorphins also have natural sedative properties that help to reduce anxiety and stress.
At the moment about twenty different forms of endorphin have been found in the human body. Beta-endorphin seems to be the most powerful. It is also interesting to note that physical exercise is not the only way to increase endorphin release. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing and even laughing have also shown to increase their numbers. Endorphins are also very good for our health - one of the few things that feels but is also beneficial. However, endorphin production in the body is very complex and researchers believe that other processes and chemicals could also be involved in the 'feel good' factor.
These other chemicals are the neurotransmitters:
These neurotransmitters also play a part in elevating mood. During exercise the brain is stimulated to produce large amounts of these chemical messengers and this induces a 'feel good' factor similar to endorphins. Anti-depressant medications that many people require, are thought to boost the numbers of these neurotransmitters.
Another factor that plays a part in elevating mood and also keeping the brain healthy is BDNF, (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). This is a substance that has been found in the brain and it's level increases during exercise. BDNF elevates mood, but it's main function is to help brain cells remain healthy and live longer. So basically when we exercise the health of our brain increases. This in turn not only elevates our mood, but a healthy brain copes with strains and stresses much better.
So now we can see how physical exercise can improve the health of the brain. However, there are other types of exercise that are just as important - mental exercise.
mental exercises for brain health
We all know that our brain is a specialised and highly complex organ. It's obvious then that this fantastic creation of nature will need more than physical exercise to keep it healthy, balanced and sharp. This is where mental brain exercises come in. Even if you only practice for 10 minutes a day the benefits for long lasting mental health are numerous.
The brain is an organ that improves and grows with stimulation and work. Not only that, but a brain that is used, motivated and invigorated protects against age-related decline and other illnesses that can affect brain functions. The brain has an amazing capacity to continue growing, developing and to a certain extent repair itself. Researchers also found that even in old age it's possible to develop more neurons. Although there are illnesses that cause deterioration in brain functions, most of the loss of brain faculty comes from inactivity and lack of stimulation. There is an old saying but one that is very true and apt for the brain - "use it or lose it!"
Scientists have discovered that when the brain is used through activities such as creativity, problem solving and so on, not only are the neurones strengthened, but the synapses - spaces between nerves - also increase so expanding the brains power and potential.
There are various kinds of brain exercises that you can do. Depending on what you enjoy or what you feel you need to improve on, you can chose from:
- memory games
- brain creativity exercises
- brain reflection tests
- brain stretching
- brain stimulation
- spatial intelligence games
- cognitive training
These are just a few of the exercises that you can do and you only have to practice for usually a minimum of 10 minutes daily. Health, including mental well being, doesn't just happen. For most of us we have to work at it in order to feel our very best. Taking 10 minutes each day is not a lot when you think about the benefits our hard working brains deserve.
Main parts of the brain and basic functions
Part of the brain
This is the largest, uppermost section of the brain divided into two hemispheres - the right and left cerebral hemispheres. This area contains all parts of the brain except the pons, medulla and cerebellum. The two hemispheres come together again deep down inside the brain, joined by a bundle of nerves called the corpus callosum.The surface of the cerebrum is covered in convoluted areas called 'gyri' that help to greatly increase the brain's surface area.
Within the cerebrum we have the cerebral cortex
The cortex is divided into four main parts with differing functions.
Cerebral cortex - frontal lobe
Regulates functions such as - decision making, problem solving. It also controls consciousness, emotions and intentional behaviour.
Cerebral cortex - parietal lobe
This area not only receives but processes any sensory input from the rest of the body. It is also here where words are formed and words are transformed into thoughts.
Cerebral cortex - temporal lobes (left and right)
Regulates hearing, language, emotions, learning and memory.
Cerebral cortex - occipital lobe
In this area information that is related to our vision is processed here.
Primary Motor Cortex
Any voluntary movements the body makes is controlled from here.
Primary Sensory Cortex
Any sensory information from what the body experiences is processed here and is part of the parietal lobe mentioned earlier.
This area has many functions inlcuding - balance and posture, it initiates movement and timing of movement. It also regulates the force and range of movements as well as the steadiness.
This area connects the spinal cord to the brain. It has control of functions such as breathing, heart rate, sleeping and eating.