When Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey spoke at MIT Media Lab's Advancing Wellbeing Seminar Series, he explained that "a bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin."
It's a memorable turn of phrase. It's also backed up by a ton of science. Ratey went on to lay out convincing evidence that exercise makes us smarter, happier, and less stressed. But in that talk Ratey doesn't explain exactly how exercise leads to all these impressive benefits (his book, however, delves deeply into the subject).
If you're the curious type who likes to know exactly what's going on in your skull when you hit the gym or jogging path, then a new Quartz article by Wayne State University psychiatrist and neuroscientist Arash Javanbakht offers an easily digestible introduction to the science, however.
Exercise your way to a better brain
Like Ratey, Javanbakht comes across as impressed with the benefits of exercise. He also comes across as super impressed with the resilience and complexity of the human brain. Most people underestimate just how changeable our brains remain even in adulthood, Javanbakht explains.
"Not only are new neuronal connections formed every day, but also new cells are generated in important areas of the brain," he writes. That's right, your brain continues to sprout new cells even deep into adulthood, which means we're constantly rebuilding our minds through our choices and actions. Exercise is a particularly powerful way to influence this process (though there are others, too).
"A molecule called brain-derived neurotrophic factor helps the brain produce neurons, or brain cells. A variety of aerobic and high-intensity interval training exercises significantly increase BDNF levels," notes Javanbakht.
Working out doesn't just nudge your brain to grow new cells. "Moderate exercise also seems to have anti-inflammatory effects, regulating the immune system and excessive inflammation. This is important, given the new insight neuroscience is gaining into the potential role of inflammation in anxiety and depression," Javanbakht continues.
And, last but not least, exercise seems to have positive effects on neurotransmitters like dopamine and endorphins that are linked to happier moods and greater motivation.
No need to sign up for an ultramarathon
All this means exercise helps not just your body but also your brain work better. Working up a sweat improves memory and cognitive performance, and has even linked to better grades. At the same time that physical activity turns up the dial on positive mental processes, it dampens negative ones, reducing depression and anxiety.
It doesn't take a cognitive scientist to figure out the takeaway here -- move more. You don't need to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or spend hours at the gym. Even seemingly minor increases in activity, like a 15-minute walk a day or a one-minute exercise break at the end of each hour of sitting, have been shown to have impressive benefits. Don't let perfectionism or fear stop you.
The incredible brain-boosting benefits of exercise are available to everyone. All you need to do is get off your butt a bit more.