Guess what?! There is this amazing therapy that is free for everyone. All you need is two feet (and many very accomplished practitioners don’t even have that!). … It’s called exercise!
All kidding aside, there is more and more evidence coming to light about how your brain health is intricately intertwined with the health of the rest of your body. The IHRSA Wellness Report posted “In addition to building strength, exercise benefits mental health” yesterday.
“Exercise improves blood flow to the brain, it helps the body detoxify, it puts you on a better cycle of physical behavior, and it leads to decreased stress. It also improves thinking and mental function and decreases your tendency toward addiction,” said Dr. Marc Siegel, an internist at New York University Medical Center and an associate professor of medicine at the NYU School of Medicine.
Exercise is also an excellent antidepressant. According to James Maddux, a psychology professor at George Mason University and expert on the mind-body health connection, “there’s evidence that exercise is maybe the best non-pharmacological antidepressant we have – studies have shown that it works better than some drugs. It’s also a great anti-anxiety intervention“.
So, for an investment of maybe 3 hours a week, you get: a detox treatment, improved thinking, and decreased stress, anxiety, depression, and addictive tendencies. Not a bad deal! Not to mention weight loss, increased energy, and socialization (if you join a club, gym, or team). An interesting component to the stress reduction is not just the physical burning up and removal of stress hormones, but also the sense of control that a regular workout gives you. The sense of autonomy you get by taking control of your health is a great stress reliever.
If you play sports, you are getting quite a bit of mental stimulation packed in with your cardiovascular workout. I happen to play tennis which gives me endless brain exercise by trying to figure out what is and how to hit the right shot at the right time in order to beat the person on the other side of the net who is trying to do the same thing! But other sports that involve strategy and skills will give you the same brain workout. If you prefer to walk, run, or use the machines in a gym, then use that time to focus on your breathing and/or technique so that you get a meditative workout. You feel extra refreshed when you’re done!
As mentioned above, teams, clubs, and gyms also add to your social network which can help you stick with your program when your motivation is lagging. Sign up with a buddy, set some goals, and help keep each other going. Just be sure to get your heart rate up in your target range for at least 20 minutes, 3 times a week to reap the benefits of aerobic exercise.
With a good workout, you can accomplish 3 of the 4 brain fitness pillars at one time: mental stimulation, physical exercise, and stress management. Add in a balanced diet, and you’re ready to go! And as always, cross train by adding variety and novelty to both your mental and physical workouts.