Exercise

We’ve heard since we were little that exercise was good for our hearts. Recent research shows it’s also good for our brains. And scientists are learning where you exercise may be just as important as the fact that you do it, especially where stress-reduction is concerned.

Dr. John Medina image
Dr. John MedinaDevelopmental Molecular Biologist
Wellness & Health
Exercise image

We’ve heard since we were little that exercise was good for our hearts. Recent research shows it’s also good for our brains. And scientists are learning where you exercise may be just as important as the fact that you do it, especially where stress-reduction is concerned. 

The most interesting brain benefit concerns aerobics and a cognitive gadget called executive function (EF). 

Executive function – EF – can loosely be described as “the ability to get things done”. It has two major components. The first is “cognitive control”, with behaviors ranging from the ability to focus to the ability to plan. Working memory (something that was once called short-term memory) is also involved.

The second major component is termed “emotional regulation”. This involves everything from impulse control to its close cousin, anger management. People who are moody usually score low on tests measuring the emotional regulation component of executive function.

Why mention it here, in a space devoted to exercise? And stress reduction? Turns out that aerobic exercise powerfully affects executive function, boosting both major components, which directly affect how you can handle stress. That’s why going for a run, or even a brisk walk, often makes people feel better.

Here’s an example that concerns moody people.

Moody people are often unhappy people – and, sadly, are more likely to make people around them miserable too, especially if their friends feel they must “walk on eggshells” in their presence. This reduces positive social interactions. Since positive social interactions are a known stress-reducer, low executive function skills makes unhappy people also very stressed people.  

Aerobic exercise boosts EF and as such, addresses moodiness and impulse control directly. Interestingly, you don’t have to do very much to get the behavioral benefit. Thirty minutes a day of moderate aerobic activity, 5 days a week,– essentially walking too fast to sing  -is both necessary and sufficient to see improvement. It’s astonishing how little effort it takes to get the benefit. 

Scientists are also beginning to understand that the environment in which you exercise may be just as important as the exercise itself. It turns out that the brain loves to walk in the forest. British researchers call it “green exercise”. Researchers in Japan call it “Forest Bathing”. Whatever the term, walking in a natural environment relieves fatigue, cools anger, and, not surprisingly, reduces stress better than walking in a city. Or a gym. Or not walking at all. Stress reduction can be observed physiologically in as little as 200 milliseconds after the walk begins, with measurable effects on mood noted after about 3o minutes. 

What we learned when we were little about exercise being good for the heart still holds true today. We just didn’t know how effective it could also be for an organ just a few inches above it.

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I’m John Medina, a developmental molecular biologist at the University of Washington. I have strong research interests in the genetics of psychiatric disorders, and author of the book Brain Rules…

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