All of us come up with excuses not to exercise or move our bodies.  Throughout this Pandemic, some people have found consistent exercise routines that fit their “new normal”; others, like myself, have struggled to find consistency with exercise and movement. I was trying to de-clutter old paperwork and came across lecture notes from a talk by John Ratey, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard’s continuing Medical Education Program.

The title of one of his talks was “Exercise and the Brain.” If you ever have excuses not to exercise (like I do), then you might dwell on some of his observations.

When you exercise, there is a rise in a hormone in the brain called Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). The purpose of BDNF is to support the survival of existing neurons, and encourage growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses. It is active in the hippocampus, cortex, and basal forebrain so it is vital to learning, memory and higher thinking. BDNF is important for long-term memory. Exercise raises BDNF levels in the brain and in the muscles.

What really hit home for me, especially within the reality of Covid-19, was re-reading that Dr. Ratey and others have found that significant increases in neurotransmitters from exercise can help depression, anxiety, stress, ADHD, addictions, Cognitive Decline and other brain diseases.

For instance they did a 4 month study comparing Zoloft (a common anti-depressant) and exercise. (Treadmill 4 times a week for 40 minutes.) They found that exercise had an equal benefit as Zoloft for depression.

Further, researchers have discovered the release of other hormones (IGF-2, FGF-2, VEGF, and ANP). These stand for Insulin like growth factor, Fibroblast growth factor, vascular endothelial factor and Atrial Naturetic Factor. All of these come from muscle contraction and travel to the brain; they have an effect on learning, brain cell health and growth. ANF comes from the heart and is an important hormone for stimulation of neuronal (brain cell) health and growth but more importantly it decreases anxiety.  VEGF can stimulate new blood vessel growth. Formerly we felt that it acted primarily in the muscle, but now know it crosses the blood brain barrier to promote blood vessel growth in the brain also.

Lastly, exercise releases endorphins and endocannabinoids (basically marijuana). These hormones will give us a sense of well being if we exercise regularly. Most importantly, these hormone changes that occur with exercise, improve the function of our immune system.

So, try not to think of exercise as a laborious task to ‘burn a certain amount of calories.’ While you’re exercising, you’re improving brain functions (intelligence), reducing stress and promoting the release of factors that will lessen the risk of Alzheimer’s, anxiety, depression and ADHD.

It is really important to get our bodies away from sitting, and to stretch, or do some strength movements, or ideally, get outside to walk, garden, stretch or even just stand. Dance, run, walk, bike…whatever…just move. You may feel uncomfortable starting, but I guarantee you’ll feel much better when you’re finished.  I challenge you to prioritize one session of movement each day. This will set you up for having a renewed energy to focus on other tasks or stresses coming your way.

Keep on trying. You can do it. Don’t ever give up.

Dr. Doug