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Does your brain ever get stuck?
Do you ever find yourself lost in the melee of competing thoughts and items on your day’s agenda?

When feeling bogged down, devoid of inspiration or motivation, the one thing I’ve found most helpful is to go for a walk. I’m lucky, my home office is betwixt an area of bushland and the ocean so I have the added bonus of choosing either a beautiful green or blue space.

I would go for a run, but as the knees now preclude this, I make do with a brisk walk, sufficient to get the heart rate up and to make me puff a bit.

Twenty to thirty minutes is all it takes to feel restored, re-energised and best of all clear about what needs to be done next.

But how does this magical process work? What special inter-neural events participate in rediscovery of the clarity needed to decide what you’re going to write about for your next blog, resolve the dilemma of where to hold the end of year office party and what to cook for dinner?

Exercise per se is an activity much beloved by brains because it helps us to function and feel so much better. From an evolutionary perspective, we have always moved and it’s thought this is what has contributed to the creation of our existing cerebral magnificence.

Which begs the question, what is our is current sedentary existence doing to our high- performance brains?

The answer is, like any high-performance equipment it’s important to take good care of it, use it appropriately and always book in for those regular services.

Exercise for Better Brain Health and Function

Back to mind clearing. Going for a run stimulates increased cerebral blood flow bringing more oxygen and nutrients to the brain for better brain function.

This is particularly helpful to the prefrontal cortex, the frontal executive network used for planning, organising, focusing and goal setting. Exercise stimulates angiogenesis the formation of new capillaries, and the release of trophic hormones that enhance neuronal health. The growth factors IGF1 and BDNF are involved in neurogenesis, the production of new neurons from stem cells located in the hippocampus and olfactory bulbs required for the learning of new skills, memory and recall, and smell respectively.

Better problem solving and good executive function means getting more done to a higher level across your day.

Exercise works fast. Just twenty minutes of aerobic exercise is enough to lead to a significant increase in blood flow to the frontal cortex. Kapow! Your thinking just got a mammoth sized energy boost.

In addition to an increase in your general thinking prowess, exercise provides a number of other handy cognitive benefits:

It reduces stress.

Exercise has been shown to help burn off excess stress hormones, especially cortisol which becomes neurotoxic if levels become chronically elevated, damaging neurons especially in the hippocampus, the part of the brain used for learning and memory.

A further upside is that the hippocampus becomes highly active during exercise, that also contributes to a boost in cognitive function. So, if you’re feeling a little stale, the best thing to freshen up your thinking is to head outside for that run, jog or brisk walk.

Furthermore, the additional set of complimentary cognitive steak knives is that exercise helps to reduce brain shrinkage, again specially targeting the hippocampal region.

Less stress means better executive function, more strategic thinking, better decisions, oh, and you’re a more effective learner.

It boosts mood.

Exercise boosts the release of our feel-good hormones; dopamine, serotonin and endorphins leading to a natural high.

Enjoying a more positive outlook increases stress resilience and motivates us to step out of our comfort zone and step up to new challenges.

If you’ve been feeling a bit down, running can help you to process those negative emotions. One study showed how exercising rather than stretching helped people to recover more quickly after watching a sad film. Which means by choosing to exercise at the start of the day, you’re better placed to handle your emotions more effectively across the day.

It future-proofs your brain.

As mentioned, exercise provides long-term benefits vs. brain shrinkage to help you stay sharp. While it is a fabulous way to preserve your gray matter, if you’re not a runner, despair not because walking works really well too. Hurrah.
One study suggested that walking 15.3 miles (24.6kms) per week can reduce your relative risk of Alzheimer’s by 40%. Not a bad return on investment.

The message is clear, exercise is great news for better brain health and function. Other than your time, there is little if any cost to getting outside for a run. With so much to do and think about in our crazy busy days, can you afford not to invest that time to obtain greater clarity of thought?

Dr Jenny Brockis

Dr Jenny Brockis is a medical practitioner and internationally board-certified lifestyle medicine physician, workplace health and wellbeing consultant, podcaster, keynote speaker and best-selling author. Her new book 'Thriving Mind: How to Cultivate a Good Life' (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.

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