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more articles by Gerson, Henry D. , MD  |  author's bio

Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the Brain

By Henry Gerson, MD


Everyone knows we feel better after exercise, but the benefits of exercise go well beyond just feeling good. There is new evidence that exercise has serious positive effects on brain structure and function; and that exercise can enhance learning, emotional wellness and memory.


Why do we feel better after exercise?

Studies have shown that exercise increases the levels of certain hormones and chemicals that are important to mental functioning and brain health. The neurotransmitters dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are all available in greater supply after exercise. These three hormones play an important role in the regulation of mood, and are precisely the same chemicals targeted by popular antidepressants. Many doctors recommend regular exercise to their patients who experience anxiety and depression, and this new research may point to the reason why exercise is so often helpful.


How does exercise effect brain function?

Exercise creates stress in our muscles, and in our brain as well. In responding to stress, the brain tissue rebuilds itself to be stronger and more robust. It creates its own antioxidants and substances that protect and organize its cells. Additionally, exercise involving coordination and complex movement challenges the cerebellum and the frontal areas of the brain. The brain responds by establishing better pathways of nerve communication for effective movement and action. Neuroscientists studying movement and mental functioning have proposed that the ability to produce complex movements correlates to thinking ability. This may be especially important for people as they age, as it can counteract age-related loss of brain size and connectivity. One study in seniors showed that exercise may reduce the brain atrophy (shrinking) that naturally occurs during the aging process.


What kind of exercise should I do for my brain?

Be active! Keeping moving provides an ongoing exercise for the brain. Aerobic exercise provides additional benefits due to its effect on body chemistry. Complex movements and coordination exercises add another level of stimulation.


How can I find out more?

One exciting application of exercise and brain function is in the schools. promotes exercise as a key part of the school day for children in elementary and high schools. Exercise has proven to help school children perform better academically and reduces problematic behaviors in the classroom.


A popular new book, SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by Dr. John Ratey, describes the clinical evidence and makes the case for exercising towards mental well-being.


Exercise is difficult for me, where do I start?

If your health condition makes it difficult to exercise, consider contacting the Cayuga Center for Healthy Living (CCHL) at the Island Health Center. The program offers support for initiating an exercise routine and other positive lifestyle changes. You can reach CCHL at (607) 252-3590.


Dr. Gerson is a board certified psychiatrist and the medical director of Behavorial Health Services at Cayuga Medical Center. He develops stress management and mental wellness programs at The Cayuga Center for Healthy Living. In his free time he enjoys mountain biking, Tai Chi and other fun forms of exercise!






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