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There’s no doubt that exercise, along with good nutrition, is a great way to improve and maintain your physical shape. But working out is not only a benefit for physical fitness — it also provides surprising positive effects for your mental state. Here are some surprising ways exercise changes your brain for the better:
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Reduces Anxiety and Depression
Even small amounts of exercise can reduce anxiety and improve mood. It does this by releasing chemicals that make you feel good, like serotonin and endorphins. It also reduces chemicals in your immune system that increase depression.
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Improves Cognitive Function
Studies suggest that there is a real link between level of cardiovascular fitness and brain functions like verbal memory and psychomotor speed — the relationship between thought and physical movement. So even getting out for a brisk walk or jog 30 minutes a day is a good start to keep your brain functioning better than before.
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Makes You Less Tired and More Alert
It may seem counterintuitive, but exercise is not likely to exhaust you in the long run. That’s not what it’s designed to do. If you’re feeling lazy in the morning, and you want to, let’s say, make the most of your weekend, a good thing to do is get up and do some kind of activity — from push-ups to sit-ups, yoga, running or walking. This forces your brain to start working because you’re doing some kind of coordinated movement. Regularly doing this makes you more alert day-to-day.
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Helps Prevent Alzheimer’s
This is especially important when you exercise in middle age. Studies cited in Psychology Today noted that, “The researchers found that participants who engaged in physical activity at least twice a week had a lower risk of dementia than those who were less active.” Keeping in mind that physical activity, which is more or less spontaneous, is different than exercise, which tends to be planned and structured. So, walking to the grocery store and other places at least twice a week is the least you can do to help keep your brain Alzheimer’s-free.
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Can Improve Brain Plasticity
Exercise plays a role in improving the brain’s ability to create more neural pathways, giving it better connections — better plasticity. This is to say that the chemicals that make you feel good can flow better, and the areas of the brain responsible for everything from fear control to motor skills can work easier.
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Makes Your Brain Generally More Active
Simply being active makes your brain better. Dr. Chuck Hillman of the University of Illinois did brain scans of 20 children before and after a 20-minute walk. The conclusion: physical activity increases brain activity. In the long term, exercise will improve mental performance and capacity.
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Makes You More Creative
Working on your novel, a new painting, or a household project? Hop on your bike and go for a ride or throw on your shoes and head out for a run and you may find an abundance of new ideas. This, according to Keith Sawyer, PhD, is because, “Physical activity gets your mind into the bodily experience… subconscious connections can pop up.” Your brain can put together concepts that it normally wouldn’t, as cardio exercise is kind of like moving meditation.
No matter what physical shape you’re in, get out there and get active, and do what you can do to get fit in more ways than one!