January 28, 2020 | ACTIVE LIFE | By Mariel Zech | Illustration by Sierra Romero

At the beginning of every new year, every brand in the fitness world reminds you that now is the best time to buy their products — now is the time to get started on new year’s resolutions. People flock to gyms, and self-help gurus and journalists share the best systems that will allow your fitness habits to stick.

Sometimes, the latest fancy workout mirror or the rocking bods in these advertisements can distract from the core reason why exercise is so important: it is remarkably good for our health (and you don’t need any gadgets to reap the benefits).

One of the most fascinating ways exercise provides a cascading effect of benefits is through the brain.

Studies have demonstrated that exercise releases neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and acetylcholine, which may relieve feelings of depression and anxiety. In addition to helping many people fight off depression, exercise can also serve as a preventative tool.

A 2019 study by Karmel W. Choi and colleagues at Harvard University analyzed the exercise habits of people with varying degrees of genetic risk for depression. The results showed that those who exercise were less likely to develop depression than sedentary people.

More specifically, when people with genes that put them at high-risk for depression lived a physically active lifestyle, their risk was mitigated. They were just as likely to develop depression as their low-genetic-risk sedentary peers.

Exercise also can lead to neurogenesis, meaning that it creates an environment for new brain cells to be born. In a 2007 study, Astrid Bjornebekk and colleagues from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden demonstrated this phenomenon with rats. The researchers found that rats who had been given access to a running wheel for 30 days showed significant brain cell growth in the hippocampus region.

The hippocampus is related to learning and memory; bolstering the amount of brain cell growth in this region can therefore sharpen cognitive abilities. The findings of this study provide another possible explanation for why exercise might protect against depression, given its link to hippocampus shrinkage.

According to neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki via CNBC, exercise can also promote cognitive function by bolstering the health of synapses between neurons so that brain cells can more efficiently communicate with each other.

To really get the most bang out of your buck for improved cognitive function through exercise, it helps to be able to put it into practice. Good thing that exercise can also help to enhance your ability to focus on a task. According to Suzuki via CNBC, just 30 minutes of exercise can immediately kickstart this benefit.

Of course, improved cognitive function has long-term impacts as well. Just as moving your body can help you to reduce your chances of experiencing depression, it can also help you reduce your chance of developing a host of other conditions down the line, such as dementia.

According to the Alzheimer’s Society, when middle-aged people consistently exercise, they cut their risk of developing dementia by 30% (and 45% for Alzheimer’s disease in particular).

Improved mental health, cognitive power, and focused attention are just some of the many interconnected benefits that exercise has to offer. Exercise has the power to improve your life today, and through its protective capabilities, it also has the power to improve your life in the future.

There’s something very satisfying about visualizing the changes happening inside your brain while you work out. The best part is that exercising can be fun – you can catch me running (more like flailing) around the rink during broomball games this semester.

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