Exercise — Even Strength Training — is Medicine for The Brain

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Pumping iron not only inflates your muscles, but also your mood, and with it comes a host of other benefits confirming that exercise is medicine. So, grab a pair of dumbbells and lift your way to better brain health. (We aren’t forgetting about cardio, either!)

Here, our expert explains how EIM (Exercise is Medicine) positively affects your brain health.

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The Exercise Effect – Strengthen Your Brain

We have been taught to use exercise to stay fit, but working out equally benefits our emotional and mental health. Reaping the benefits of exercise stretches from the “runner’s high” to the weightroom. Dr. Mindy Pelz, nutrition and functional medicine expert, and owner of Family Life Wellness in California explains, “Exercise stimulates something called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), that is a protein which acts like fertilizer on the neurons in our brain.”

What makes this interesting is that exercise has a powerful way of strength-training the brain to be better and healthier. “Not only does BDNF regenerate old and worn-out neurons that have been contributing to the loss of memory, mood disorders, and inability to focus, but this powerful protein can also help your body grow new neurons in the brain, which improves your ability to learn new information and skills,” she adds. Good news for those looking for a much-needed brain boost. And the benefits don’t stop there.

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Elevate Your Mood in Minutes

Movement is medicine when moods are out of whack. “Exercise should be a go-to treatment for the fatigued, moody, stressed, or unfocused brain,” Pelz says. And you don’t need a gym membership to lift weights — or your mood.

“Exercise is free, it’s powerful, and oftentimes we don’t give it as much credit as it deserves for mental health.” Adds Pelz. From cardio to weightlifting, you can turn a bad day into a great one. “It should be our first line of treatment for any mental and/or emotional struggles” adds Pelz. Thankfully, it doesn’t take that long for the mood-boosting benefits to kick in. “Twenty minutes is a great range to enhance BDNF production, but you can move yourself out of an anxious state within minutes through walking, running, or hiking,” Pelz assures. So, if you need a quick lift in mood, take a run or lift through a high-intensity weight-training session.

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Lift Iron to Beat the Blues

Time well spent with iron is known for building stronger bones, increasing lean body mass, and raising metabolism, but it can also help fight the blues. A study published in the June 2018 issue of JAMA Psychiatry analyzed 33 clinical trials for the effects of resistance exercise on depression, and the results were impressive. Results showed that resistance training “significantly reduced depressive symptoms” among research participants.

Not to mention, it also provides you with the feeling of accomplishment after you complete a workout, and reaping the results of getting stronger also helps the brain feel good.

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Move Forward to Calm Down

Put cortisol and anxiety in their place while moving forward. “Exercise, specifically in a forward movement, such as walking, running or hiking, tells the amygdala, (the part of the brain where fight or flight reactions live), to calm down and relax,” Pelz explains.

In a nutshell, when you are moving in a forward manner while exercising, you are signaling to the brain to calm down and for anxiety to take the back seat.

This goes for cortisol production as well. “When we are stressed, our body makes cortisol, and cortisol was designed to make us move,” Pelz says. This is why exercise is a crucial part of not only reducing anxiety but fighting inflammation and fat storage.

“If we do not use the cortisol, that cortisol gets stored as fat or goes into tissues and accelerates inflammation.” And, according to Pelz, if you didn’t need another reason to get moving, “cortisol is a mood killer, so using cortisol through exercise will help ensure that your moods stay positive and high.” In other words, make cortisol work for you, not against you.

Fit happy man running outdoors and smiling
Dragan Grkic

Is Weight Training or Cardio Better for EIM?

The short answer is: They’re both effective. But, if you are looking to secrete BDNF and calm anxiety, lacing up your running shoes may be more helpful.

“Both training methods have a healing effect on the body, just in different ways,” says Pelz. And it really depends on the person. “Lifting weights can be really powerful for secreting growth hormones, which slows the aging process down and speeds up fat burning,”  Pelz says. As where cardio can calm the anxious mind.

Case in point: Both weight training and cardio, when utilized together reap a host of benefits from physical to emotional and mental. But, if you feel your emotions need a lift and your brain a boost, using exercise as medicine can get you feeling better, whether it’s lifting or cardio.

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