“Why do you work out? For my brain, Sir.”

When my doctor told me to work out and to become more active, I rebelled in a manner as a teenager would do. I feel bad and I definitely don’t feel like moving! I knew about studies that have ‘proven’ that exercise is beneficial for depression. Before my illness I used to be pretty active and I didn’t want to start to build everything up from scratch again. I wasn’t thrilled about meeting the limits of my body. I’m not happy with my current shape either so something’s gotta give.

Before I do anything, I’m curious if and how it could work. Is there any science that supports the benefits of movement without being biased? I mean, what depressed person would participate in a study to prove that cycling in your living room would make him/her feel better? To start I would not could have participated in that study a year ago. I would have been the drop-out.

I need to make it clear that in my opinion there is a time and a place for everything. Once I started to feel better – a lot better compared to the darkest moments of depression – and I had some energy left to do things that I genuinely like to do, I started to think about moving my body. Suffering from mental health doesn’t only leave a mark on your brain but on your whole body. Basic needs like sleep and nutrition are influenced by a low mood or anhedonia. Sleep patterns can be disturbed and appetite can vanish. No way that I was going to push my body at that time to build some muscle.

Now that I eat on a regular basis and try to keep my sleep hygiene well, I started to work out. After all, we weren’t designed for a sedentary life. Our bodies, including our brains, were fine-tuned for endurance  activities over millennia of stalking and chasing down prey[1] and to pick up fruits, veggies, nuts and seeds.

I was told about numerous advantages of moving your body. You can become happier, it protects you against stress, it can help depression forward, it’s good for your immune system and so on. And maybe for me the most important of all, it would boost your energy. That is something that I definitely need. What I didn’t know was that it really seems to help our brain.

Image from CleanPNG.com

“There is a very consistent finding that the brain works better after exercise but why that is has been harder to figure out.”[2]

What kind of exercise are we talking about?

Aerobic exercise appears to lead to changes in both the structure of the brain and the way it operates, which together bolster learning in kids, give adults an edge on cognitive tasks, and protect against the cognitive declines that often come with age.[3] I guess with aerobic they mean moving that get your heart rate up and I was told that I needed to exercise for 30’ on a daily basis.

What brain benefits can you expect?

More waves in your brain.

Your brain becomes much more active during exercise. The way that your brain communicates is by firing groups of neurons together. Looking at an EEG this active area can be detected. That is how we know that there is activity in that specific area. When a whole group of neurons fire together, like a whole choir singing the same song, it forms a brain wave. Different kinds of brain waves are linked to one’s mood and mental state.

Lower-frequency waves occur when we’re running on autopilot: brushing our teeth, driving, or sleeping, for example. Higher-frequency waves, known as beta waves, occur when we’re awake and mentally engaged and are associated with attention, memory, and information processing. Aerobic exercise causes a shift in the amplitude and frequency of brain waves. More beta waves, in other words, means that exercisers may be in a more alert state. “The brain is in a different gear when the human being is in motion.[4]

Looking sharper.

During exercise, the brain becomes much more receptive to incoming information, leading to measurable changes in vision. Exercise would have an effect on the visual cortex. One of the tasks of the visual cortex is to scan your environment and to focus on cues that indicate danger, a predator or prey and to filter out background noises for example. Scientists found that low-intensity cycling boosted this feature-selectivity ability so the brain was able to better identify specific features during exercise. After exercise they found that vision is more precise.

Image Creative Commons. Lachs, L. (2020). Multi-modal perception. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from http://noba.to/cezw4qyn

Your brain gets fueled.

The benefits of exercise to your brain may begin as soon as your heart rate begins to rise. When you’re moving in that way that your breathing is heavier (there is more oxygen supply to the muscles), that your heart rate becomes faster as it pumps oxygenated blood around the body and into the brain. And in much the same way that your muscles demand more energy during exercise, the brain begins gobbling up glucose or other carbohydrates when the body is in motion[5]. The brain uses some of that fuel to build more neurotransmitters and levels of glutamate and GABA—two of the most common neurotransmitters in the brain—increase. The brain may be “filling up its stores of essential ingredients.” Exercise, in other words, may restock the brain with essential neurotransmitters that it needs to operate optimally. This process might be why exercise has been shown to alleviate depression[6].

A younger brain due to movement?

At least one study indicates that active individuals tend to have more and healthier blood vessels, or, in the words of the authors, a “younger-appearing brain.[7]”  These structural changes in the brain generally take at least a few weeks to develop but lead to long-lasting improvements in regions of the brain associated with cognitive tasks, like working memory.

While exercising your brain makes new connections. Studies found that runners had increased connectivity between parts of the brain involved in memory, attention, decision-making, multitasking, and processing sensory information. Over time, exercise changes both the number of neurons in your brain and how they communicate.

I am being preachy? Is exercise thé holy grail? Of course not but all small bits count. What do you do in order to maintain fitness? Are you motivated to get moving?

“The best reason to get moving is because you can.”


Notes, references and further reading.

[1], 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 https://www.outsideonline.com/2186146/your-brain-exercise

[7] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7051270/


30 thoughts on ““Why do you work out? For my brain, Sir.”

  1. I hope I can push myself to get back to exercise. I was doing bodyweight exercises before a trigger made my body hurt all the time. It’s finally better but I’ve been lacking motivation to exercise.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. But you’ve posted also your progress in walking a while ago!
      Every ‘exercise’ needs to be adjusted to the possibilities of course but what I’ve noticed is that an element of ‘fun’ is needed.
      There are so many styles of movement and I’m guessing your a master at some!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I think certainly the fun. I was fortunate that I enjoyed cycling and felt that I had “found” it. I swam for years to try and keep fit – but it was so boring!
        Today I am pleased that my walking progresses, but I do not really walk for the sake of walking. I walk to get somewhere. Especially when somebody promises me coffee and cake, I will walk 🤣

        Liked by 1 person

      2. actually, that was the great thing about cycling. I could eat what I wanted and would still lose weight. Exceot I did not reckon that eating what I wanted would cause the stroke! I once rode in Be, by the way. I think it must have been when we stayed in Blankenberge. I went along the coast to Ostend and back.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Oostende is my favorite but maybe Blankenberge is the most popular.
        Off course when you work out a lot, you can eat more but when you notice such a big side-effect, that’s also a big no-no.
        It’s not easy to do the right thing is it?

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I saw a clip recently in which Joe Rogan very passionately rebuked a woman for saying she never has the energy to work out. My gut impulse was to disagree with him but eventually I came around to his point of view. If I have the energy to walk downstairs to grab a slice of pizza, I have the energy to do a couple of crunches! I think “will” is more the correct word but I don’t think we’re even close to understanding what that is.

    There’s some research I’ve seen which appears to show that regular exercise actually MODIFIES YOUR DNA in a positive way. Pretty incredible if that’s true. Still not enough to get me to do a push up in the last 6 months, unfortunately. Haha

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Modifying your dna in a positive way would be awesome. Although I don’t think we’ll be ever able to measure it (in this lifetime I mean).
      And I see what you mean about the pizza, if you’re able to move, you can move 🙂 Just make sure it stays fun.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah it’s something I’m interested in leisurely. Here are some links that I found but I will say that it’s very difficult to know which specific article of Zierath’s talks about DNA changes without reading all of them. The news articles I read link to a page that no longer exists. I don’t think they *lied* about their source as she is clearly a researcher in the field, but they should really fix that. Lol

        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Juleen_Zierath
        https://healthland.time.com/2012/03/07/how-exercise-can-change-your-dna/

        “Using the biopsied samples, researchers compared the activity in a series of muscle-related genes before and after exercise. More genes were turned on in the cells taken after the exercise and the participants’ DNA showed less methylation, a molecular process in which chemicals called methyl groups settle on the DNA and limit the cell’s ability to access, or switch on, certain genes. By controlling how much methylation goes on in certain cells at specific times, the body regulates which genes in the DNA are activated — that’s what differentiates the development of an an eye cell, for example, from that of a liver cell.”

        Not sure if anything will come of this study or if it even means anything, but it is interesting!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! Thanks for sharing – this is exactly what I needed because for the last few months, I have been trying to convince myself to start working out but it’s just so difficult to get started.
    Like…I always set an alarm for 6 am ’cause I am like – let’s go running in the morning – but when my alarm goes off, I will be absolutely unable to put myself together and I usually decide to go running the next day – and well this’s been going on for months haha but I did notice that I feel so much better after exercise! So let’s see if I can get up on time and go running tomorrow morning!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That’s a good point about not necessarily pushing yourself into intense exercise in the middle of the darkest states. If we strain our bodies without having that solid base provided by adequate sleep and nutrition, it can harm rather than help. Some movement might still be helpful. I sometimes go for a walk when I feel tired and unmotivated to get my blood pumping and increase my alertness. Still, I think it makes sense to start slow. Relatively easy starting goals also makes it less likely that the exercise will lead to negative inner narrative for those who struggle with perfectionism. 😁

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh that perfectionism, I’m reading up about it. I’m determent to defeat it or to make it more work for me than against me.
      The app that I use asks after session how hard it has been on you and adjusts the following exercises. I’m very glad about that otherwise I wouldn’t have done it or couldn’t have kept it up.
      A walk can be so beneficial too. It maybe doesn’t look like exercise but it is. You use all of your senses and when it gets your blood pumping I think it’s perfect. I assume you don’t walk very slow then 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Three hour long hikes! That’s incredible, no other exercise needed nor meditation or strange teas. The dog as an answer to all your problems 🙂
        I can manage 40′ but that’s about it if I don’t want to end up lying on the couch the next day 😅

        Liked by 1 person

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