“With my brain on exercise, I find that I am more likely to have truly novel thoughts, an incredible feeling.” – Sanjay Gupta, Keep Sharp
In our culture, exercise is almost always directly associated with vanity. While this is not a bad thing in some circumstances, I think it is important to look into deeper reasons to implement different types of exercise. This can help with inspiration, habit building, and sticking with it for the long term. I’d like to highlight the mental health benefits of exercise and unpack why different types of exercise can support mood, focus, coordination, and even creative thinking.
One simple mindset shift that sticks out to me was back when I was in college. One of my friends asked if I wanted to go on a run one day. Bogged down with papers and exams, I tried to decline. She simply then said, “I’m usually way more productive after I exercise.” I decided to go, and did notice that I was way more focused and productive after my hour run. From then on, I began to think of exercise as something that helps with focus, collecting my thoughts, and even creativity. To me, it was no longer “unproductive” time. Beyond that, I began to notice the connection between exercise and mood, stress, and more. Below are a few benefits of exercise that I’d like to highlight:
It Increases Oxygenated Blood Flow to the Brain
One way that all forms of exercise, but especially cardio, can help cognition is by simply increasing blood flow to the brain. More blood delivers more nutrients and oxygen to the brain, thus improving its function. Low blood flow is related to poor memory and focus and well as diagnosed mental illnesses. From a growth standpoint, exercise can actually help the brain generate new brain cells, which is very beneficial as we age.
It Improves Sleep
As I will mention again and again, deep sleep is one major way that we can proactively take care of our mental health for the next day. While different kinds of exercise can impact sleep in different ways, an uptick in overall movement has been consistently shown to improve overall quality of sleep. During quality sleep, our brain “cleans” and resets itself, and we can totally feel those benefits the next day.
It Enhances Coordination and Body Awareness
This area gets more specific to types of movement like strength training, yoga, and pilates. Coordination and body awareness are important for that mind/ body connection. Coordination targets a specific area in the brain that can enhance overall thinking and cognitive flexibility. Once overall movement is a consistent habit, this is one reason that diversifying your workouts can be beneficial for their unique benefits.
It Enhances Confidence and a Sense of Wellbeing
In addition to all of these physiological benefits, simply learning new physical skills and setting and reaching your personal goals can positively impact your confidence. Trying new things, entering new territory, and healthy growth are beneficial for our overall mental health, and physical exercise is a major way to do so.