In working out, the mind gets in lock step with the body and its movement, becoming one with the metronomic swinging of our arms or pumping of our legs. Think back on any important decisions you contemplated during a workout and then made afterwards. Now, think of any you made without that contemplation. Are there any? If so, probably few of them.
A workout can make you feel like a new person. The reality of this is not far off the mark. Thirty years of neuroscience research has identified a strong link between aerobic exercise and cognitive clarity. More exciting is the more recent uncovering in this area, that of neurogenesis. It wasn’t that long ago when scientists believed we had a set number of neurons in the brain and when we killed our brain cells there was no regeneration which occurred. This, as it turns out, is not true.
In animal models, new neurons can be produced throughout life. But here’s the catch – the only thing found to stimulate the neuron production is vigorous aerobic activity. Karen Postal, president of the American Academy of Clinical Neuropsychology has this to say: “That’s it. [Vigorous aerobic activity] is the only trigger that we know about.”
But, it’s not just that the additional neurons are generated. What’s equally cool is exactly where they are born. These new neurons are generated in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with learning and memory. It is probably fair to say that this is why there have been multiple studies which show a link between exercise and improved memory. Postal, a runner herself, adds, “If you are exercising so that you sweat — about 30 to 40 minutes — new brain cells are being born. And it just happens to be in that memory area.”
The benefits of aerobic exercise extend post-workout as well and into other parts of the brain. Of note, there is increased activity in the frontal lobe, the area of the brain also referred to as the frontal executive network system. Located right behind the forehead, studies have recorded increased blood flow to this region after 30+ minutes of vigorous exercise, the region associated with thinking more clearly. The frontal lobe is also associated with the regulation of emotions. The results of one recent study conducted by Harvard psychology PhD candidate Emily E. Bernstein, also a runner, were both curious and interesting. “I notice in myself that I just feel better when I’m active,” Bernstein said. She started to become really interested in the intervention studies that have popped up in recent years that suggest if you can get people who are having trouble with mood or anxiety to exercise, it helps. “But why?” she wanted to know. “What is exercise actually doing?”
To find out, she did a version of a classic experiment among researchers who study emotion: She and Richard J. McNally, a psychology professor at Harvard, played a reliable tearjerker of a clip: the final scene of the 1979 film The Champ.
Before watching the film clip, some of the 80 participants were made to jog for 30 minutes while others just stretched for the same amount of time. Right after either running or stretching, they all watched the film clip and then filled out surveys to indicate how bummed out the film had made them. Bernstein kept them busy for about 15 minutes after that, and surveyed them again about how they were feeling. Those who’d done the 30-minute run were more likely to have recovered from the emotional gut-punch than those who’d just stretched — and, her results showed, the people who’d initially felt worse seemed to especially benefit from the run.
But there’s another big mental benefit to gain from vigorous aerobic exercise, one that scientists have yet to pin down in order to poke at and study: the wonderful way your mind drifts here and there as the miles go by.
Mindfulness, or being here now, is a wonderful thing, and there is a seemingly ever-growing stack of scientific evidence showing the good it can bring to your life. And yet mindlessness — daydreaming, or getting lost in your own weird thoughts — is important, too. Consider, for example, this argument, taken from a 2013 article by a trio of psychologists in the journal Frontiers in Psychology:
“We mind wander, by choice or by accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us to finally understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.”
Just because the benefits of losing yourself in your own thoughts are not easily measured doesn’t mean they’re not of value, and there are few ways I know of that induce this state of mind more reliably than working out. I was a competitive swimmer from age 5 through college. There was this fleeting state of being that was very Nirvanic, where I became one with the water and everyone around me ceased to exist. There was no sound. I just was. Once I realized I was in this ethereal state of being, it just as quickly slipped away, much to my disappointment. Some refer to this state of being as “existing in the Void.”
Something I firmly believe is that once you stop moving, you start dying. I don’t care what age you are. If you don’t stimulate the body, you’re not adequately stimulating the mind. I’ve always believed that the body drives the mind, not the other way around. The above examples of the body of research support my beliefs. So, even if you lose your zest for competing at some point in your life, remain rabidly committed to moving, and moving vigorously. Walking is better than nothing, but it’s not vigorous. In every study, “breaking a sweat” is a key component of the body/brain connection and stimulation.
This isn’t about competing, but rather about long-term well-being. If you’re like me, you’re going to fight aging and the grave tooth and nail. My goal is not to live to 100, but to LIVE WELL to 100. Continuing to challenge myself physically will be a central, key component to quality longevity.