How one athlete is changing the conversation around mental health.
The view that exercise is medicinal is not a new one. In fact, healers have been recorded to “prescribe” exercise to patients dating back to antiquity. In 600 BCE, the Indian physician Susruta indicated that exercise “should be taken every day” to half of total capacity. Nothing too rigorous, he thought, as that might prove fatal.
Ancient China had similar philosophies: the surgeon Hua T’o (100 AD) promoted exercises based on the movements of deer, tigers, bears, cranes and monkeys, which eventually became foundations of Shaolin Kung Fu. Like Susruta, he believed that excessive exercise was linked to disease. From Hippocrates to today’s physicians, exercise has been widely accepted as a therapy for preventing diseases like diabetes and for promoting overall health.
The effects of exercise on our body are pretty evident but a new field of research is looking at its effects on our minds. Over the past dozen years, neuroscientists have been gathering evidence of exercise’s benefits on brain function. To give you a little context, these are relatively new insights that stem from the paradigm shift in neuroscience that the brain is shaped by experience and is not a “fixed” structure with a definite number of cells. Have you ever heard the myth that you are born with all the neurons you will ever have? Today, we know that not only does experience shape the brain, but new brain cells are being produced all the time. And the best news is that exercising regularly can enhance the birth of new neurons and help them live longer.
Some of these new cells are born in the brain area called the hippocampus, a region critical for learning and memory which is sensitive to environmental factors like stress and exercise. Recently, scientists learned that breaking a sweat stimulates the production of the protein FNDC5 in the brain. Over time, this protein stimulates another protein called Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF – the brain’s BFF), which nourishes new neurons and synapses, preserves the survival of existing brain cells, and is critical for learning and memory. BDNF also orchestrates the actions of other brain chemicals and systems, making it a crucial mediator for the ability of exercise to enhance learning and memory. So endurance training, in particular, triggers a biochemical cascade that helps our brain create new neurons that survive, maintaining our memory and cognitive skills.
It turns out your gym sessions are doing more than just lowering your stress levels – they can actually mimic the effects of antidepressants. A new study shows that exercising could purge blood that accumulates during stress and disrupts neural plasticity, thus protecting the brain from stress-induced changes associated with depression. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that more than 350 million people are affected by depression. Understanding it and developing therapies to alleviate symptoms is crucial to our global health.
While research in this field is relatively new, other aspects of exercise, like its endorphin-boosting power, paint a clearer picture of how hopping onto your bike could have lasting effects on your mood and overall health.
Evidently, exercising is as beneficial for our brains as it is for our bodies. The great news is that it doesn’t take much to reap the benefits – moderate exercise, brisk walks, even just 30 minutes a day – can power up our brain to renew itself and keep us sharp as a tack.
Image credit: Jesuso Ortiz