Jan 19, 2009

Physical Exercise and the Brain

In order to live a healthy life you must have some kind of physical activity every day. But can exercising your body affect the way that you think and learn?

In a recent podcast interview to promote his new book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”, Dr. John Ratey explains how in some schools troublesome children are given a “Time In” as opposed to a “Time Out”. This basically means that when a child is disruptive they are not put in isolation as traditional punishment dictates. Instead, they are instructed to use a stationary bike or similarly active task for a few minutes. Some even employ the videogame “Dance Dance Revolution”, where the player must synch-up quick dance steps with images on a television screen. The idea is to stimulate the release of neuropeptides and neurotransmitters through exercise, and thus bring a balance to internal brain chemistry. The release of these chemicals helps in activating the frontal cortex, therefore inhibiting the lower functions of the brain, such as those that cause impulsive and runaway behavior. Dr. Ratey refers to recent studies as proof that exercise has been decisively linked to better marks in school, especially math.

In fact, exercise has been cited as an effective treatment for a variety of mental illnesses, including depression, ADD, and the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s. During exercise, the brain releases the same chemicals it would under the influence of medication prescribed by a psychiatrist (dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, etc.). These chemicals increase focus and energy, decrease impulsiveness, elevate mood, and give a bevy of other positive effects. In addition, the brain becomes more able to rewire itself and create those connections associated with learning. And the best part is – exercise is freely available to all and comes with no side effects!

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