Your brain is constantly remodeling itself. When you learn to play the guitar or expand your vocabulary, you physically alter your brain. When you meditate, you stimulate the executive parts of the brain to get bigger, and the anxiety parts to get smaller. In brain-speak, this is called neuroplasticity and there is powerful science to back it up.
When I tell my mindfulness students about the research into brain science, they are excited that they are doing something positive and proven.
When I first started meditating, we had no idea that meditation was changing the brain, just stories that said it was helpful. But, since I was desperate and looking for anything that would help reduce my anxiety and depression, I tried it anyway and I am so glad I did.
My meditation practice has carried me through one crisis after another. I depended on it during career changes, a rocky marriage, and a divorce. It supported me while raising two sons and consistently improved my mental health and resilience.
I’m convinced now that one of the main reasons my meditation practice was so helpful was because of the physiological changes it was making in my brain, although I didn’t know that at the time.
Things were going pretty well until I got to the other side of 65 and I started experiencing new brain challenges. It became harder and harder to come up with the right word or remember why I was in the kitchen.
Exercise Improves Memory and Learning
So, I started researching what I could do to strengthen my mental ability along with my mindfulness practice. What kept surfacing was that exercise is potent medicine for the brain.
I know you’ve heard about the health benefits of exercise, maintaining weight, protecting against heart disease and cancer, reducing blood pressure, and warding off type II diabetes. But did you know that exercise produces Miracle-Gro for the brain?
In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey tells us that “As far as the brain is concerned, its job is to transfer information and constantly rewire itself to help us adapt and survive.” Adapting and surviving meant moving our bodies to attain food and evade predators and one of the ways it does that is through exercise.
Exercise balances the incredible alphabet soup of brain chemicals called neurotransmitters and neurotropic factors in the brain that we depend on to learn and remember. Some of these include dopamine, serotonin, noradrenaline and the neurotropic factor BDNF.
Exercise Protects Against the Negative Effects of Stress
These chemicals also play a huge role in decreasing the effects of stress. Due to the ever-widening gap between our biological evolution and the world we live in, chronic stress is rampant in our society. For example, when a tiger threatened our ancestors, they could discharge their stress by running or fighting, and the biological effects were relatively short-lived.
Unfortunately, that is not the case in our fast-paced, always-on society. We can easily get locked into chronic stress, often accompanied by negativity, anger, or fear. Again, exercise can rescue us by balancing the neurotransmitters that calm the mind and strengthen our ability to bounce back.
Exercise Calms Anxiety
For years It’s been known that exercise wards off anxiety almost immediately, but what wasn’t known was why. Now we know that physical activity lowers the resting tension of the muscles and interrupts the anxiety feedback loop to the brain. So, in layman’s terms, if the body is more relaxed, the mind becomes calm and less prone to worry.
Again we run into the alphabet soup of brain chemicals that elegantly makes this happen below our conscious awareness. Some of the things that exercise can do in our everyday lives to ease our fear and anxiety:
- Provide distraction – by taking us away from the negative loop of worry
- Ease muscle tension – which sends messages to the brain that all is well
- Builds brain resources – back to the neurotransmitters
- Improves resilience – we become more confident that we can effectively reroute our anxiety into something positive
Exercise Reduces Depression
When we become depressed, we are stuck. As a result, certain areas of the brain lose their ability to adapt. John J Ratey says it this way, “ …the brain gets locked into a negative loop of self-hate, and has lost Its ability to work its way out of the hole.”
If it is true that depression is due to a breakdown in the brain’s ability to adapt and regenerate, exercise gives us what we need to recover. Movement stimulates the production of BDNF and the other growth factors and balances the neurotransmitters that help us make new connections and motivate us to act.
Exercise Helps Us Age with Grace
Okay, here we are to the thing that made exercise attractive to me. What does movement do for the aging brain?
- It strengthens the cardiovascular system that supports the growth of neurons.
- It regulates fuel by increasing insulin-like growth factor IGF-1, which regulates insulin in the body and improves brain plasticity.
- It elevates your stress threshold.
- It improves your mood.
- It boosts motivation.
As you may know, I’ve been a big proponent of meditation for a long time and now I’m just as excited about exercise. The question is not if the brain is changing. We know it is. The question is… Do you want to guide the remodel?