What is your favourite form of exercise? Maybe dancing, the gym, running, yoga, pilates, swimming, walking the dog? Perhaps you are a couch potato and generally do what my 6 year old Maxwell suggested on Sunday after our 2.5 hour hike, and exercise your bum through sitting?
I have always loved exercise. As a child and teenager I did Calisthenics (hated the leg tan and the costumes, loved the clubs and rods), jazz and classical ballet (kidded myself I could make it as a somewhat pudgy ballerina), with the jazz continuing into my 20’s, running (distance not sprints, NOT fast), netball (which drove me nuts due to the stop start nature and the whole stay in your area thing, plus being tall and the goal keeper, I can not count the number of times I got called for being too close to the protected species goal shooter and ended up getting thrown off the court for swearing at the umpire!), basketball (which became my sport due to the go anywhere you like but just get out of the key after 3 seconds and keep moving rules), and rode my bike everywhere. I loved being outdoors and being physical and I also loved yoga, dance and anything acrobatic, spending much of my primary school years upside down, jumping off bars, doing handstands and backbends and even almost cracking the full splits.
As I grew older and moved to the city, this turned to the gym and like many of you out there of a certain age, I spent the latter part of the 80’s and into the 90’s, wearing lycra and going to circuit classes, doing the grapevine and lifting weights. When I fell pregnant with my first child at 26, it wasn’t unusual for me to do double classes at the gym, or do a class and then a weights session. I also had periods of being very overweight following the birth of all three of my children, and it was the combination of exercise and food changes that got me back to healthy weights every time. When I had Maxwell at 40 years old, I stopped exercising and I suffered.
About 4 years ago I started back walking, went back to the gym with a trainer, and eventually started running for the first time since leaving school. I now tend to go out for a walk/run at least 4 times each week. I can also do full push ups for the first time in my life and that is so empowering. If you want to read about my last weight loss journey and lifelong battles with weight you can see that here.
The biggest thing I think exercise has done for me however, is improve and stabilise my mental health and wellbeing. Exercise makes you sharper, allows you to expand your mind and continue to develop and grow it, just like the muscles in your legs or arms, and it improves how you feel. As someone who has lived with depression in my past, this is very important to me, but it is important for all of us.
Many people have various theories about the nature of intelligence. Some view it as a fixed thing, while others see intelligence as a quality that can develop, and expand. Your brain is no different to the rest of the muscles in your body, you either use it or lose it. Brain training and things like crosswords and memory challenges help increase the connections in your brain. But you can actually get an additional brain boost by exercising. The benefits of physical exercise, especially aerobic exercise, have positive effects on brain function in a number of ways, ranging from the molecular to behavioral level. According to a study done by the Department of Exercise Science at the University of Georgia, even briefly exercising for 20 minutes facilitates information processing and memory functions.
I know that when I take my exercise in the middle of a working day I am much sharper and more focused when I return, and when I am out exercising, is often when new and great ideas come to me. I have a personal opinion that exercise in the outdoors has an even bigger impact on your wellbeing, as you get connected to the earth and nature. I have gradually shifted from being back at the gym a couple of years ago, to all outdoor based exercise as it fills me with joy.
Exercise affects the brain via a number of mechanisms. It increases your heart rate, which then pumps more oxygen to the brain. It also aids the bodily release of a variety of hormones, all of which help provide a nourishing environment for the growth of brain cells. Exercise also stimulates the brain plasticity, which is a growing area of research which sees the brain as not static or fixed, but with the potential to grow and change, by stimulating growth of new connections between cells in a wide array of important cortical areas of the brain.
Recent research from UCLA showed that exercise increased growth factors in the brain- making it easier for the brain to grow new neuronal connections. As a person who has suffered with depression, I find that exercise has a brilliant effect on my wellbeing. The feel good hormones and endorphins released have an antidepressant-like effect associated with “runner’s high”, which has been shown to connect with a drop in stress hormones. A study from Stockholm showed that the antidepressant effect of running was also associated with more cell growth in the hippocampus, an area of the brain responsible for learning and memory.
Mental and physical exercise are the perfect partners. According to BrainHQ, differences between exercise styles, such as choosing cycling over running, are associated with an enhanced brain function during and after working out. Ballroom dancing, an activity which has both physical and mental elements has had a higher impact on cognitive functioning over exercise or mental tasks alone, indicating that the best brain health workouts involve those that integrate different parts of the brain such as coordination, rhythm, and strategy, so get dancing!
So there you have it, your brain is the most important muscle in your workout, and exercising your body can improve your mental health, wellbeing and even allow you to grow and change your brain and how it functions. Off the couch! What is your best type of exercise and how do you stick at it?