One of the principles of human health and wellness that I cannot stress enough is the statement, movement is medicine. Movement and exercise is a growing topic of conversation in the medical field, and research paper after paper is showing that exercise is one of the most effective ways to improve quality of life and the duration of life. Dr. Mark Tarnopolosky has famously said, “If there were a drug that could do for human health everything that exercise can, it would likely be the most valuable pharmaceutical ever developed.” If medical research continues to tells us that exercise is a true form of medicine, it is simply not enough to say “you need to do more exercise,” without explaining why. That is like handing out prescription medication and saying, "just take a few of these," without offering any context. I simply hope to add that context. In part 1 of this movement is medicine series, I want to talk about the incredible benefits of exercise on our brains.
Let’s rewind and cover the basics of the brain and its evolution. One main idea that I find really interesting is the notion that the sole reason for having a brain is for movement. Professor Daniel Wolpert from the University of Cambridge states, “We have a brain to produce adaptable and complex movements. Moving our body is the only way to affect the world around us. Emotions, attention, and other cognitive processes are relevant, but they are only important to either drive or suppress future movements.” It’s a very interesting concept that makes a lot of sense in my mind. Our brains are designed to create action. And without the ability to act, we would be at the complete mercy of our environment. No action, no survival.
“That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement.” (Llinas, 2001)
Throughout human evolution, our brains grew to help us become better movers and ultimately become the evolutionary victors. Our early ancestors were hunter-gatherers, which means that covering a lot of ground and having a certain standard of fitness was critical to their survival. Simply put, if they did not walk and run many miles throughout their days, they did not eat. The more humans moved, the more they learned. The human brain began evolving at a dramatic pace, and with each new connection came a stronger foundation for sensations, perceptions, and cognition, which all developed to serve the primary function of action. These new neuronal connections, allowed early man to learn, plan, imagine, remember, sort, communicate, and evaluate consequences all for the common goal of becoming more efficient hunter-gathers. And while the world has changed dramatically over the last tens of thousands of years, our genes have not. We are still hardwired for movement, and our body’s reward systems are encapsulated in that.
When we exercise, our body goes into overdrive, signaling our heart to increase it’s output and blood pressure in order to supply our muscles with the necessary molecules to perform the given task. And while the benefits of exercise on our heart, lungs, and muscles are well understood and appreciated, I believe the impact that it has on our brain is even more profound.
The benefits of movement and exercise come in a variety of mechanisms when it comes to brain health. One mechanism is the obvious increase in blood flow that comes from exercising. When our heart rate increases greater than that of our resting heart rate, we also have an increase in our cerebral blood flow. That increase in blood volume works through the different vascular structures of our brain and with repeated exercise, increases the amount of vessels within it. This process is called angiogenesis. For all the exercise science nerds out there, think of this as the "SAID" principle for brain vessels. This is the specific adaptation on the imposed demand. Ultimately, as blood flows through this unbelievably important end organ, it generates more interconnected vascular networks. Angiogenesis is beneficial in stages of development in order to help build rich brain tissue and is necessary in any trauma or degeneration to help repair damaged or lost brain tissue. Movement also signals our brain not only to create more vascular connections but also to enhance neural connections and create new brain cells. Exercise literally changes the brain. It makes critical parts of the brain more plastic and enhances the capability of adjusting to and learning new things.
Not only does exercise increase blood flow, angiogenesis, and the generation of new brain cells, it also increases the production of important neurochemicals. This neurochemistry flowing through our bodies as a result of exercise impacts both our mental function and our mental health. Long story short: the neurotransmitters released during movement function to improve learning and memory, enhance cognition and concentration, boosts social connection and confidence, regulate emotions, reduce pain, reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s and alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Boom. Movement is Medicine. As stated earlier, our reward system is tied up within movement. From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies would release these neurotransmitters to reward us for tracking down food or completing a successful hunt. This chemistry makes us feel good, it allows us to recover, and is necessary for our growth and development.
Exercise stimulates our reward system which is responsible for feelings of joy and motivation. Three chemicals responsible for these feelings are dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. Dopamine is specifically associated with motivation, attention, and fulfillment. It’s responsible for the feeling of satisfaction when we do something important and it reassures us that an activity is worth doing. Exercise not only increases the levels of dopamine in the brain but it actually increases the amount of dopamine storage and receptors. Norepinephrine is another important neurotransmitter that helps mobilize the brain for action and improves energy and attentiveness. It plays an important role in regulating stress and enhancing productivity. Serotonin, which is responsible for stabilizing our mood, and creating feelings of happiness and well-being is also significantly higher after bouts of exercise. Increasing our physical activity in turn increases these three import chemicals that are hard-wired in our reward system. Low levels of these three neurotransmitters are found in individuals suffering from anxiety and depression. Every piece data points to exercise as being as effective of an anti-depressant as any other drug out there. Exercise also enhances the effectiveness of any mental health treatments.
It’s well known that individuals report feelings of analgesia, euphoria and connection to others after a good workout. One of the main reasons why is because exercise also activates our endocannabinoid system. Yes, the same system that cannabis activates in our brain is also accessed through movement and exercise. This system is hardwired in our brain to essentially amp up anything that makes you feel good. It enhances the effects of endorphins, dopamine, and oxytocin while also dampening anxiety, fear, stress and anger. It also has profound affects at dialing down our sense of physical pain. These endocannabinoids are neurochemicals that not only reduce pain, they also enhance connection, bonding, and trust with others. Oxytocin is responsible for these feelings of connection and our production of this hormone increases dramatically during activity. It’s one of the reasons why community and group fitness classes continue to gain popularity and why I recommend you find someone to exercise with. Humans are hardwired for social connection just as they are for movement.
After a workout, we are primed for happiness, connection, productivity and most of all, learning. The data is overwhelmingly positive about the benefits of exercise on our cognitive abilities. Studies continue to show that exercise improves memory, focus, problem solving, enhances cognition, creates faster recall and allows us to learn more efficiently. In order to learn, the brain needs to grow, increase synaptic connections, and enhance its cellular network. The neurochemical that is responsible for this structural brain growth associated with learning is known as brain derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). It is a growth factor that regulates the neurons survival and helps solidify nerve plasticity and connection between other neurons. Consider BDNF the miracle grow for the brain. It improves the functions of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens and protects them against the process of aging and cell death.
“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided us with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”-Plato
Now throughout this article I’ve used the word exercise. And for some people, their experience with traditional exercise has been less than ideal. I believe we get caught up with the notion that exercise needs to be this incredibly intense workout where we either log a ton of miles on the treadmill or move a ton of weight around in the gym to ultimately get to the desired outcome of dripping sweat and pure exhaustion. And while that’s great for some people, it’s unrealistic and not necessary to reap the brain boosting benefits that exercise provides. The goal is to simply get moving, and increase our heart rate and respiration. Now find a way to make that happen throughout your week. The movement is the medicine, so find the movement practice that is best suited for you. Go for a walk, take a bike ride, lift weights, dance, swim, parkour, hike, ski, skate, box, yoga, play your sport, etc. There is no one size fits all approach. All you have to do is move.
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About the Author
I am a 2018 Graduate from the University of St. Thomas, where I earned a B.S. in Exercise Science. During my time there I played football for UST and was fortunate to play for some of the top teams in program history. Every offseason I worked as a student athletic trainer and was lucky to be apart of an integrated sports medicine team. As a life-long athlete I’ve always been fascinated by the human body, health, and performance. My college experience sparked a new drive for this field and I decided to fully dive into graduate school.
I am currently in my last year at Northwestern Health Sciences University, where I am pursuing my Doctorate in Chiropractic. The more I learn in this field, the stronger my passion gets. Moving forward, my goal is to empower people to take control over their own health and wellness, educate them on how to optimize each aspect of their well-being, and ultimately inspire
others live a synergistic life at their highest potential.